Broadway Review: 'Falsettos'

Lindsay Timmington

  • New York Critic

I don’t often agree with New York Times theatre reviewer Christopher Isherwood, and in particular his recent assessment of the William Finn/Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of Falsettos is no exception. Isherwood calls the show “A Perfect Musical” and I couldn’t disagree more. But then again, I hated “A New Brain” (also a Finn piece) and frankly, I find his word-led musicals to be trite, uncomfortably verbose, musically unappealing and surprisingly I’m in agreement with Isherwood here, “startling” but I don’t think we’re using that word the same way. 

Falsettos hits some pretty heavy notes. Set in New York, between 1979-1981 it focuses on the neurotic family life of Marvin, his ex-wife Trina, their son Jason and oh yeah, Marvin’s boyfriend Whizzer, the family therapist, Mendel (who ends up with Trina) and in Act II the lesbian couple next door. Throughout Act I we’re trotting along trying to figure out and follow the frantic spewing of lyrics only to realize we’re basically just watching a regurgitation of typical New York family angst. Nothing new here.

For most of act one I found myself trying to keep up with the lyrics and working hard to listen and follow what was happening because IT WAS ALL HAPPENING SO FAST. The supersonic speed of lyrical delivery made the musicality of the show feel like an afterthought. You know that friend you have who talks too fast and too much and you struggle so hard to keep up that you’re not even sure what they’re talking about? Yeah, that’s this. In musical format.

The reprieve, the bright point for me came with Marvin’s ex-wife, Trina, played by the magnificent Stephanie Block, brought the house down with her knife-wielding, mixing bowl-wearing rendition of “I’m Breaking Down.” The show is worth seeing just for that number alone. 

But then came “The March Of the Falsettos” which struck me as so silly and so over the top that it never landed, never resonated and I never cared. Maybe because I didn’t get it until I did some post-show research, but here’s the thing—I don’t want to have to do dramaturgical work after a musical. Save that for Ivo van Hove, folks, not a musical revival.  While I laughed at the ridiculousness of the staging (day glow costumes and fart joke choreography) this was a  “beat them to the punch” strategy to cover a song that may have resonated with audiences 25 years ago, but doesn’t now. 

It’s all fun and games (and my second favorite number, “Watching Jason (Play Baseball)” and actors sliding around giant felt blocks to create the set pieces (yeah, Isherwood—we all get the very literal interpretation that the family is trying to piece a life together, constantly arranging and re-arranging, but no, I disagree—it DOESN’T work, even though it’s fun to watch actors throw blocks at each other) until Act II when Whizzer comes down with a mysterious, un-diagnosable illness that is rampaging the gay community. 

I’ll admit. They got me. Not Finn. Not his music or his lyrics but the performances therein. Rannels’ and Borle’s portrayal of Marvin and Whizzer at once lift a superficial, catty relationship to one of depth, seriousness and heartbreaking truthfulness. But all of the performances were outstanding. I mean—Andrew Rannels, Christian Borle, Tracie Thomas, Stephanie Block — you’re guaranteed gold with these folks belting your tunes. And frankly they were 85% the reason I bought tickets to the show. But the tunes alone? They’re so underwhelming, so pedestrian, so trite and sometimes so forced that I had a hard time caring.  Here I found evidence that bad material can be redeemed by a powerful performance and (spoiler alert!) in the final scene, at a cemetery, I was moved to tears by the performances.

I’ve decided though, that this is a matter of taste. Cause this guy Finn and Lincoln Center are selling out Broadway houses and bringing crowds to their feet, myself including. So while Falsetto’s fell flat for me in terms of material, the performances alone are worth seeing, even if I still don’t get “March of the Falsettos.”

Photo: Joan Marcus