BWW Review: FALSETTOS on Live From Lincoln Center is Timely, Important Art
In theory, watching FALSETTOS in 2017 shouldn't feel as relevant and necessary as it does. The first act is set in 1979, the second act in 1981. For the characters in the show, especially the adults, memories of the riots at Stonewall would be fresh and much more than distant echoes, HIV prevention through prescription drugs would be a total fantasy, and the US Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriages the kind of thing dreams are made of. Yet this story of building the family you choose and undeniable love in the face of adversity, fear, and death resonates with heartbreaking potency. The power FALSETTOS has to stir emotions in 2017 only reinforces the value of putting the show back on Broadway in 2016 and Live From Lincoln Center's sage decision to capture it for broadcast on PBS.
FALSETTOS is deftly led by Christian Borle as Marvin, a newly out Jewish gay man living in New York City; Stephanie J. Block as Trina, Martin's former wife and the mother of his son; and Andrew Rannells as Whizzer, Martin's half-Jewish boyfriend. Borle's Martin is informed by zesty charisma as he is, for the first time, truly discovering himself, his wants, and his needs. Beautifully, the book by William Finn and James Lapine (who also wrote the lyrics), keeps Marvin's family staying healthy and whole as a central desire for Marvin, which Borle skillfully makes palpable for the audience. Block delivers a sumptuous and brilliant performance as Trina who is adjusting to her new reality and finding a quiet solace and growing comfort in realizing that she is still important to Martin. As Whizzer, Rannells exudes sex appeal and uninhibited sexuality, but this is all tempered by a tangible compassion and love for Marvin and his family. Early on it is made clear that Whizzer is not monogamous, and it is this bold, robust, and almost dangerous disregard for societal norms that makes Marvin giddy over Whizzer.
Brandon Uranowitz brings life to Mendel, Marvin's psychiatrist who eventually falls in love with Trina. Uranowitz ensures that the audience understands just how conflicted he is about the situation he finds himself in all while buying into how he is swiftly carried away by a romance that wouldn't make sense in any other scenario. Jason, Marvin's and Trina's son, is adroitly performed by Anthony Rosenthal. Rosenthal crafts a character who is at first perplexed by the shifting dynamics of his familial life while going through the rigors of puberty but truly embraces and deeply loves the unconventional family that is built around him.
As the lesbian couple that only appears in the second act, Tracie Thoms (Dr. Charlotte) and Betsy Wolfe (Cordelia) add humor and emotional depth to the production. Wolfe's Cordelia is instantly lovable. She is a shiksa caterer specializing in Jewish cuisine, and Wolfe never misses an opportunity to make audiences smile and laugh. Thoms's Dr. Charlotte is an internist, and Thoms masterfully makes the frustration around a then unnamed disease spreading in male patients powerfully real. Thoms's character rails against the media for staying silent while treating patients, including Whizzer, to the best of her ability. While the first act's drama centers on the familial, Thoms's character allows the show to usher in a more universal and far-reaching conflict which gives the musical a deeper emotional impact.
On stage, FALSETTOS is an extremely intimate production. Unlike stereotypical Broadway musicals, this show only has a cast of seven characters. There's no ensemble or chorus to fill the stage. And this fact is something that scenic designer David Rockwell and light designer Jeff Croiter took full advantage of. Rockwell's dynamic cube that continually breaks apart to become abstract, multipurpose set pieces until abstraction is no longer applicable and Croiter's keen lighting that precisely draws and focuses attention where it is needed ensured audiences from the front row of the orchestra to the back row of the balcony personally felt and understood the raw pains and vivid loves of these characters. These details do not go unattended by director for the Live From Lincoln Center presentation Matthew Diamond. Alternating between close-up shots, shots from crains, and shots from stationary cameras strategically positioned throughout the Walter Kerr Theatre, Diamond allows audiences in front of their TVs to truly experience this musical in the most personal way possible. He also, smartly, allows our eyes to wander to the reactions of characters out of the spotlight in certain key moments, just like the eye would wander if we were sitting in the theater.
Live From Lincoln Center's magnificent capture of FALSETTOS dexterously ushers important and timely art into the living room of Americans, and it does so at a crucial moment for our country and the LGBTQ community. If nothing else, FALSETTOS teaches its viewers that regardless of the labels that separate us, compassion and empathy for one another and love can bring us together. Compassion, empathy, and love is the foundation of family, friendship, and community. Compassion, empathy, and love allow us to see beyond gender lines, religious affiliations, and the other labels that make us who we are. Like the box at the beginning of the show, we are only whole when our family, friends, and community are there to ensure that all our pieces fit together. Likewise, every loss in our family, circle of friends, and community affects us and causes us to lose a piece of ourselves.
The Live From Lincoln Center presentation of FALSETTOS is scheduled to air on PBS on Friday, October 27, 2017 at 9 p.m. E.T. Check your local listings for up-to-date scheduling information.