You undoubtedly know their names and faces: Andrew Rannells plays Lena Dunham’s’ gay confidante Elijah in HBO’s Girls. Christian Borle played the depressive composer Tom Levitt on NBC’s Smash. But they’re creatures of the theater: Rannells was Tony-nominated for his breakout performance as Elder Price in The Book Of Mormon; Borle recently vamped as a preening sequined Shakespeare in Something Rotten!, for which he won the second of his two Tony Awards. Good. Now you know their bona fides. They are the real thing, they have bedroom eyes. and together they inject the Broadway revival of Falsettos with all the depth of feeling you would expect from one of the sweet-sad-funniest Broadway musicals of the last quarter-century (just barely; Falsettos opened at the John Golden Theatre in April 1992).
This production is much like Borle’s Marvin and Rannells’ Whizzer: It’s a mostly winning collaboration of unlikely partners, in this case Lincoln Center Theater, a non-profit company, and Jujamcyn Theatres, a commercial producer and theater-owner. Of course, such collaborations are the norm today, where Broadway producers frequently underwrite LORT productions to test the waters (e.g., Hamilton). But Falsettos, being the story of a man (Marvin) who quits his wife and young son to take up with another man (Whizzer, a rake) while fantasizing that they can all be one happy family, was an enormous risk in 1992 — before the legalization of gay marriage, when an AIDS diagnosis was still a death sentence and violence against gay men and lesbian women could be considered the norm in certain precincts. And it remains a risk in these more tolerant times, when so much has changed and yet…
OK, I’m in avoidance mode. Not because this revival isn’t terrific — it is, mostly. It’s got tons of heart, unimpeachable performances by a cast of seven including the best kid actor since Fun Home‘s Sydney Lucas. But while the production — staged by James Lapine, who also wrote the book for the show, scored by William Finn (both won Tonys for their work) — left me teary in all the right places, and laughing in all the other right places, it never actually took flight. It’s earthbound.
In Act I, set in the late 1970s, Marvin has moved out and has taken up with Whizzer, leaving his wife Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and son Jason (Anthony Rosenthal, the aforementioned kid) to cope. Trina begins seeing Marvin’s let’s-call-him-unorthodox psychiatrist Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), who promptly falls in love with her and gets very protective of the seriously, if forgivably, confused Jason. The show begins with “Four Jews In A Room Bitching,” an opener almost as famous and raucously funny as “Comedy Tonight,” from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum. Comparisons to Stephen Sondheim are inevitable, as Finn the composer is a protégé breaking the mold: his tonal palette can be as challenging as Sondheim’s but he’s more conservative, frequently concluding an impressionistic melody with easy-on-the ears Broadway melody-making (of a very winning sort, to be sure). A long time ago, Finn’s lyrics struck me as serviceable but on the predictable side and, especially in the comic songs, funny without being especially witty. The ballads, however, especially “Unlikely Lovers,” are catch-in-your-throat soaring.
The central plot points of Act II (the two parts were originally three, written over a decades’ span and ultimately elided into the single show) are Jason’s impending bar mitzvah, and Marvin’s reconciliation with Whizzer. They’re living next door to the lesbian lovers Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe), a kosher
caterer devoted to creating the perfect nouvelle bar mitzvah cuisine. Mendel and Trina are married and Jason, to his great relief, has discovered girls. But Dr. Charlotte sings that “something bad is happening” at the hospital, where more and more once-healthy young men are arriving with an unknown disease that’s killing them. Eventually, Whizzer will be one of them.
What’s endearingly right about the show is the casting across the board: In addition to the two leads, Block, recovering from illness the night I saw the show, is particularly fine in the very Sondheimian “I’m Breaking Down.” Uranowitz makes the annoying Mendel less so. Thoms is compelling as a doctor whose notion of how health works is shattered by the unknown killer that’s come to town, and Wolfe is increasingly dependable as a breath of fresh air in depressing environs (as she was in both The Last Five Years and Bullets Over Broadway).
And of young Rosenthal, I can only say he’s irresistible as Jason, whose journey from innocence to a rare kind of wisdom is nothing short of heartbreaking.
What’s bafflingly wrong with the production has primarily to do with the visuals, a major fail: David Rockwell’s set is unusually (and atypically) ugly, its slits and slots of cityscape suggestive, to my eye, of a computer punchcard and about as engaging. I would add that the same goes for the show’s identifying art as well, which is in the style of a ’60s sex comedy and can’t hold a candle to the trenchant Keith Haring image used in the original.
That, combined with a first act that just works too damned hard to win us over, makes for some rough going and is also atypical of Lapine’s subtlety and attention to detail. There’s too much busyness among both the actors and that set, with drops rising and falling and blocks in constant motion as the actors reconfigure them to suggest the different locales.
But then Act II happens and the show, for all its dark turns, suddenly seems light as air. That may be an odd way to feel about a musical in which love and death are so intertwined. But, to paraphrase one of the sow’s funnier lyrics, that’s the miracle, of Finn-yism.