by Wickham Boyle
Wednesday Nov 9, 2016
I adore Billy Finn. I have been saying this for four decades, no exaggeration. During this time I have seen every iteration of “Falsettos” from Broadway to individual songs belted and bellowed over the phone when we worked together during the launch of the Big Apple Circus. Yes, William Finn really did escape from the circus and ascended to become one of the most exalted, insightful, funny, ravaging intelligent people emboldening the American theater scene.
The newest incarnation of “Falsettos” reminds us of all Finn’s gifts and how perfectly fitted they are to his long-time collaborator, the visionary director James Lapine. I think that many of us fretted that “Falsettos” might have become a bit long in the tooth, like stalwart fans who wept and worshiped it the first time when it came in three parts: “In Trousers,” “March of the Falsettos,” and “Falsettoland,” but take heart old timers and first timers; this is marvelous.
In tribute to the writing, the music and the direction “Falsettos” is not a frozen timepiece, but a concatenation of the terror that scorched the landscape when AIDS first burst into our lives and the hope that propelled us. And it has also morphed into a work about blended families and most shocking to me, is the feminism vibrating across a stage, written in the early ’80s.
“Falsettos” has so many layers that reviewing it is part dissection, part history project, and all joy. The show begins in true Finn fashion with a rollicking number called “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” I recall that Finn thought that might be the perfect name for his show, and thankfully cooler heads prevailed. But at the very opening, we know we are allowed to laugh at things that are usually hidden from view and unspoken. It is the razor-sharp humor that allows “Falsettos” to draw back a curtain to reveal how we create family, unity and forward motion in perilous times.
The test of a timeless work of art is whether it can move past its original quest. In the early ’80s there was the unknown killer that became the AIDS crisis. Perhaps from this disease and the activism necessary to battle a non-listening government, we grew into a more expansive society with greater equality for the LGBTQ community.
And now, on the cusp of a terrifying election, it seems many have receded into a time of hatred and repression. When we watch in a darkened theater filled with the most glorious music and words that can flip from clawing tears from your eyes to belly laughter we know that we are all lucky to be alive now.
As I watched “Falsettos” I thought of all the wonderful, bright, talented people from my life in the arts who should have been in the theater with me. I missed them; I missed my hopeful young self, but I was soothed surrounded by vibrating talent.
“Falsettos” chronicles the story of Marvin, who is married, then divorces and finally embraces being a gay man. Christian Borle, who usually has oversized comic roles, here has an emotional depth rarely seen from him. He is jubilant to finally have the life he dreamed of madly in love with another man and then losing that love to a plague. Marvin is a man boiled down to his essence and Borle is powerful in this role. Marvin’s sweet, manipulative, handsome lover is Andrew Rannells, from “Book of Mormon” and “Girls,” and here he too has a depth and range that takes our breath away.
Marvin was married to Trina; a woman who thought her life was all sewn up when Marvin rips the seams out. The incredibly talented Stephanie J. Block tackles this new world feminist role. This woman can croon, or belt or sing a song while eating a banana and spitting out the phrase, “I’m breaking down.” She is broken, and yet dinner still needs to be made, served, cleaned up and a bar mitzvah has to be planned. Luckily she gets help from the kindly shrink Mendel played with a bumbling schmaltz by the talented Brandon Uranowitz.
The kid at the center of many battles is young Jason, Anthony Rosenthal, who takes center stage, dances to the “March of the Falsettos’ or attempt to hit a baseball while the cast sings, “We’re watching Jewish boys who almost read Latin, up battin’ And battin’ bad.” He is great.
There are two other characters populating the world of “Falsettos,” and they are “the lesbians next door.” Cordelia, a caterer, played with an easy verve by Betsy Wolfe and Dr. Charlotte who is solemnly charged with dealing with the bachelors who come in scared and confused and leave later “unenlightened.” When Tracie Thoms sings “Something Bad Is Happening,” you feel the chill of that first wave of a crisis about to hit. She brings a strong presence to the role, and the ensemble is augmented for it.
My tiny misgiving is the set. It is designed by David Rockwell, also an architect of good intentions, and is composed of a series of huge soft Jenga-like blocks that can be used to create a sofa or be knocked down in anger or create baseball bleachers. All good ideas, but the time and action of moving all the pieces, assembling and reassembling often distracted me from just wanting to be at the moment with the music and the words and the mellifluous voices, and of course a wonderful, in Finn’s words, “teeny, tiny band.”
It might be evident to all, that Finn’s idol when he was at Williams College, was Stephen Sondheim; also an alum. The attention to idiosyncratic wordplay, the encyclopedic knowledge of history, music and art that flows from tightly strung lyrics and the complicated, syncopated or purely waltzing rhythms that emanate are a tribute to Sondheim and of course, are made modern and marvelous by Finn.
“Falsettos” is a show about synergy and sympathy, activism and romance and believing. It is what we all needed decades ago, and we need it even more than ever now.
“Falsettos” runs through Jan. 8. 2017 at the Lincoln Center Theater at Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48 Street. For information or tickets, call 800-840-9227 or visit http://www.lct.org/shows/falsettos