After seeing the current revival of “Falsettos,” New York Times critic Charles Isherwood deemed it perfect, while the New Yorker’s Hilton Als considered it perfectly awful.
“There’s hardly a moment in the exhilarating, devastating revival of the musical ‘Falsettos’ that doesn’t approach, or even achieve, perfection,” Isherwood writes.
“The rot at the center of ‘Falsettos’ is slathered in self-congratulation,” writes Als, who labels it “one of the most dishonest musicals I have ever seen,” with “weak humor” and “hideously cheap sentiment.”
I wish I felt as passionately as either critic about the Lincoln Center production at the Walter Kerr, the first Broadway revival of a show that was hailed as groundbreaking in 1992. There is much I enjoyed about it, especially the performances of its exceptional seven-member cast, five of whom I’ve singled out for their previous work – Andrew Rannells, Christian Borle, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms and Brandon Uranowitz. But ultimately I found “Falsettos” neither terrible nor terrific, and that surprised me. I expected to be thrilled by it.
The show certainly has an intriguing history. It debuted on Broadway a quarter century ago, when the creative team of William Finn and James Lapine stuck together two shows that had debuted separately at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons — “March of the Falsettos,” in 1981, and “Falsettoland” in 1990. Although written a decade apart, they take place only two years apart…but those two years represent two entirely different eras.
Act I (“March of the Falsettos”) is set in 1979. Marvin (Christian Borle) has left his wife Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and son Jason (Anthony Rosenthal) , because he has fallen in love with a man named Whizzer (Andrew Rannells.) Confused and blue, Trina seeks out Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz); Trina and Mendel fall in love with one another, and eventually marry.
Act II (“Falsettoland”) is set two years later, in 1981. We meet two new characters Marvin’s neighbors, the “spiky lesbians” Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms), an Internist, and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe), a self-described shiksa (non-Jewish) kosher caterer. Efficiently, Cordelia is chosen to cater Jason’s forthcoming Bar Mitzvah, and Dr. Charlotte notices that “Something Bad Is Happening” (the title of a song) to her patents – including Whizzer. His illness – never named – is, of course, AIDS.
For all its willingness to present ambivalent, bickering characters in complicated relationships, “Falsettos” feels dated in many ways. It has been overtaken not just by plays like “Angels in America” and musicals like “Fun Home,” but even by TV series like “Modern Family” and “The Fosters.” A reconfigured family is now a weekly given on TV. Perhaps as a result, “Falsettos” at times feels like an old-fashioned TV sitcom. For example, the lesbian couple’s existence seems to revolve entirely around the central characters; without a life of their own, they seem to be more plot devices than people. The show also at times recalls an old Borscht Belt entertainment in that (in what feels like a calculated nod to Broadway demographics) much is made of the characters being Jewish.
I’ll admit this sometimes hit the spot for me, such as in the family’s arguments over Jason’s Bar Mitzvah party, and everybody’s anxiety when Jason is up at bat:
We’re watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball
Remember Sandy Koufax
You can do it if you wanna do it.
Take heart from Hank Greenberg
It’s not genetic
Even you can be copasetic
Now, it might have been possible for director James Lapine – who is also the co-writer and the original director of the show – to have used what’s out-of-date about the show to transport us back to the era. But the production resists establishing a clear timeline, preferring to pretend to be timeless, as reflected in the set design by David Rockwell. Rockwell’s sets for the recent revivals of On The Twentieth Century and She Loves Me both hit home runs for me, but here he punts with a generic backdrop of a city skyline, and colorless blocks of foam that serve variously as furniture and, at a climactic moment, as a tombstone.
As for the music, “Falsettos” is a sung-through musical with a score full of pleasantly bouncy songs and clever lyrics. The characters often sing separate lyrics simultaneously, woven together into a kind of aural tapestry. There is an impressive artfulness to these compositions. But the melodies produce no earworms, and the lyrics sometimes spin word pictures with the delicacy of a sledgehammer, albeit usually for comic effect, such as in the very first song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”
So, yes, I’m unable to label “Falsettos” perfect, but I also don’t find it hideous. There are moments in this nearly three hour musical – such as the final, moving duet between Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells – when I’m nothing but glad they brought it back.
Walter Kerr Theater
Music by William Finn; Book and lyrics by William Finn and James Lapine; Directed by James Lapine
Cast Andrew Rannells, Christian Borle, Stephanie J. Block, Anthony Rosenthal, Betsy Wolfe, Tracie Thoms, Brandon Uranowitz
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes including one intermission
Falsettos is scheduled to run through January 8, 2017.