Weirder was when that vaguely odd number ends and the real story begins, and you realize that despite this being an expensive Broadway production, there is no set aside from some giant gray cubes. And the actors throughout the entire show are constantly rearranging the blocks into different shapes to represent tables, chairs, therapy couches, beds, exteriors of houses, &c. This set design was really distracting and had very little payoff, the only interesting uses being as a house that could be easily knocked down, a decent metaphor for the family strife, and when all the cubes rearranged into a grave at the end. But despite how strong that ending visual was, I don’t think it was worth two hours and 45 minutes of wasted set design and extra jobs for the actors. It looked very ill-fitting for such an enormous stage, and I thought how much more appropriate this production and show in general would be in a small black box theatre. I think I could have appreciated it more in that setting.
Early on, as the cast forms the gray blocks into living room and bedroom furniture, we learn that Jason, the child, is scared that he’ll be gay because his ‘father is a homo’, as he sings. The funniest part was that Anthony Rosenthal, playing Jason, seemed to have a bad cold, and he kept sneezing and coughing in Christian Borle’s face and they tried not to laugh. Not as funny was that, in the wake of Sydney Lucas in “Fun Home” putting all other child actors and child roles to shame, this role (and sadly the actor) was indeed put to shame. We also learn that Marvin sees a therapist to figure out his tumultuous relationship with Whizzer - based more on lust at first than love, though they do admit that they truly love each other. Christian and Andrew’s chemistry was stronger than that of most couples, onstage or onscreen, and these two Broadway superstars made the thin story of the first act more compelling because of it. Nonetheless, their characters were kind of thankless until the very end, which is unfortunate for such incredible actors. They both do extremely well with what they’re given, but aside from a few money notes and their killer chemistry, they aren’t given much.
Then we learn that Trina needs a therapist because of this very difficult time for her family, which is understandable. But what isn’t understandable – except for purposes of the fake story – is that she goes to Marvin’s therapist Mendel. And then they all decide that Jason, who is having an understandably rough time with this transitional period, needs a therapist too…so they also enlist Mendel to therapize Jason. One really important lesson that I wish the characters learned before the show started is that there are lots of psychiatrists in New York City. Like I bet there’s at least one on every block of Manhattan and more when you get to the Upper East Side. So, there’s no good reason for a father, mother, and the son to all see the same psychiatrist. That’s the kind of crazy talk that would merit a visit to a psychiatrist. A different one.
Mendel quickly falls in love with Trina, which is against lots of rules and makes Marvin feel even more alienated from his family. He also needs a new therapist now. We’re supposed to feel bad for Marvin when these things start biting him in the ass but he did leave his family for a hot young thang so I mean what did he expect would happen. Mendel seems great at first, if severely in breach of ethics rules, but he really is the same immature sort that Marvin is, and Trina knows it, but having a husband turn out to be gay has apparently destroyed her confidence so she tells herself she could do worse and convinces herself that its in her best interest to marry Mendel. And I can see how one could arrive at that conclusion because Brandon Uranowitz is flipping hilarious. His subtle gesticulations really made the character and I was loving it for a while. But his character didn’t live up to the early potential. At one point amid all the constant familial drama, Marvin slaps Trina, and I was sooo ready for Trina to stand up and fight back (physically or verbally) but Mendel physically holds her back to prevent any escalation. I think that’s when I lost it. I was pretty close to the stage so it was really hard for me to remember that this wasn’t real and it took all my might to stop myself from climbing up on that stage, punching Marvin for hitting a woman/his ex-wife and then beating the crap out of Mendel for failing to stand up for his new wife. Like what is that shit about. It doesn’t matter that there are two lesbians in the second act (conveniently referred to continuously as ‘the two lesbians who live next door’); this is really a show by, about, and for (gay) men.
Even so, I really tried to love it. I wanted to love it. And one scene got me closer to that point than any other. In fact, as incongruous as it sounds for a show I didn’t really enjoy that much, this one scene – Trina’s “I’m Breaking Down” – might be one of the best performances of a song I’ve ever seen live. I know! Stephanie J. Block is that talented, and this song is directed that perfectly and performed that impeccably. In it, Trina is chopping up food for dinner or a pie or something while she sings a hilarious song about how all this tumult and disorder in her family and in her life is making her lose her mind and all her control, which isn’t that funny on its face, I guess, but Stephanie nails every nanosecond of this scene with perfect comic timing and hysterical frenzied humor, and this one song was worth the ticket price alone. She gets so wild in her crazy that by the end she’s singing through a mouthful of banana and is just a complete mess and it’s amazing. I never thought of Stephanie as a comedian or saw her do anything funny, but this shot her up to the top of the musical comedy list. So, everyone else in the theatre community thought this production was fantastic, to the point where it’s a frontrunner for the Best Revival Tony award. As much as I disagree with that, I would condone such a win just because of Stephanie and this one song. She was that great. As much as I kind of wished I chose a different show to see that night, I am so happy I got to witness this expert performance. I really can’t get over it.
After that scene, I tried even harder to get a bit more into it, as the dynamic was more understandable, with a growing family trying to get through all these changes. But I could not get past how unfortunately terrible a lot of the music was. Not all; there are some bright spots. But too much of the score was terrible. I remember literally gagging when Mendel sings a line about going ‘to jaw’ – as in TO EAT, just so it would rhyme with ‘my paw’ – as in A HANDSHAKE. I can’t stop having nightmares about how terrible that lyric is. There’s no reason for a rhyme that forced when both sides of it are horrendous. Just change both lines!!
And then two insane surprises happen. The first is the most unforgivable because I still don’t understand what it was going for – “The March of the Falsettos”. The four male characters come out in the dark and march over the cubes which are set up as a city skyline or some such. They are wearing bodysuits with patches that reflect the blacklight in the dark, so it’s very 1970s college dorm vibe. And they are singing in falsetto voices. This is legit the one reference to the title of the show. And they march and they sing in those high voices “march of the falsettos, march of the falsettos” and it’s WEIRD. Like, look-around-at-all-the-patrons-around-you-to-see-if-it’s-just-you weird. It was like the opening number in that it was divorced from the reality of the characters’ story and was just for fun or something, I don’t know, but I know my eyes were open rull wide.
The next unforgivable thing is unforgivable for an entirely different reason. See, this is the 1980s, and it’s about some gay men. So maybe I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t because so far it was a comedy, and a silly one at that, at least at times. And its first act didn’t let on that anything of the sort was coming. So when Whizzer starts getting sick, I didn’t get sad; I got ANGRY. Really angry. You can’t have a kind of absurd tone and then all of a sudden start talking about AIDS and expect everyone to quickly get on board with the requisite depth of emotion necessary to discuss the AIDS crisis. It made me angry that they broached this topic in such a poor manner as to prevent me from getting emotionally invested, because we all should always be emotionally invested when this disease comes up. I was pissed that I wasn’t able to connect with this more serious material because it came out of nowhere. And I guess the argument is that well the disease came out of nowhere, to unsuspecting people, and that’s totally true. But so far, this show wasn’t about reflecting pure reality, as the march of the falsettos showed. So I don’t buy that, instead of continuing to tell the story in an artistic way that allowed for maximum empathizing and connection, they suddenly switched to a cold blank reflection of reality. And the whole section of the story about Whizzer dying was incredibly emotional and well done, but because there was no bridge from the former section of the story (the whole first act and change) to this intense drama, I never found a way to catch up to that drama. We were never given another route to it, so it felt very far away and detached from any emotional connection with the audience. Well, some people did manage to find another bridge because there was some SERIOUS sobbing at the end, and I wanted to be there with them, but I wasn’t.
I learned after the fact that my feelings of disjointedness and choppiness were warranted, because the original show was a series of three separate one-acts presented Off Broadway in 1990, like sequels. The Broadway incarnation of “Falsettos” is composed of the second and third one-acts in that series, so, although they are related and follow the same characters and story, the first and second acts are really two completely separate shows. That explains a lot for me. Well, except for the “March of the Falsettos” number. And why they didn’t work more on combining the two more cohesively. And why they kept the second act longer than the first, which should be rule #1 of theatre – never have a longer second act omg especially when people’s attention spans are getting shorter. The show was so long. My hair is so now.
A few days after I saw it, I heard that they are going to air it this season on PBS, as is usually done with one Broadway production per season or so. Despite my frequent exhortation that musical theatre has to be enjoyed live to be appreciated, and despite how lucky I feel having seen these amazing actors live, I kind of wish I’d skipped this one and waited to see it on TV. For free. Still, I’m ecstatic about a few things: one, that I did indeed get to see these actors live, and especially that I saw Stephanie J Block perform this role so wonderfully, and two, that I get to see her perform that role again. For free.