Monday , October 23 2017

‘Falsettos’ gets fresh & lively B’way revival – Complex family emerges

(Left to right): Betsy Wolfe, Tracie Thoms, Anthony Rosenthal, Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, and Brandon Uranowitz attend ‘Falsettos’ Opening Night — Press Room at New York Hilton Midtown on Oct 27 in New York City. (AFP)
(Left to right): Betsy Wolfe, Tracie Thoms, Anthony Rosenthal, Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, and Brandon Uranowitz attend ‘Falsettos’ Opening Night — Press Room at New York Hilton Midtown on Oct 27 in New York City. (AFP)

NEW YORK, Oct 28, (AP):  Once upon a time, AIDS hadn’t happened yet, there were no legal LGBT rights, and openly partners were just beginning to seem possible.

Composer-lyricist William Finn illuminated the story of a  Jewish man and his extended family in the late 1970s with inventive lyrics and spirited tunes in the sophisticated musical comedy “Falsettos.” Groundbreaking for its time, it premiered on Broadway in 1992 amid the growing AIDS crisis, and won two Tony Awards for best book and best score.

Now Lincoln Center Theater has brought a fresh, lively revival to Broadway, starring Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells and Stephanie J. Block, that opened Thursday night at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The book is co-written by Finn and James Lapine, who directed the original and also expertly helms this complex, fast-paced production. The almost entirely sung show, enlivened with Spencer Liff’s sprightly choreography and a small but mighty orchestra, focuses playful wit on tumultuous relationship dynamics. The adults’ immaturity is reflected in the set, a cube comprised of oversized building blocks.

“Falsettos” is a bittersweet pairing of two of Finn’s one-act musicals “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland.” The first act is a domestic drama with humorous twists, as selfish protagonist Marvin (Borle) leaves his confused wife (Block) and precocious son to live with his lover, Whizzer (Rannells) in 1979. Marvin wants everyone to get along like a family, but his immaturity prevents him from connecting with his unhappy son, Jason.

Borle is a strong, angry Marvin. His often-sardonic expression accentuates Marvin’s prickly character. Rannells has a charming artificiality that makes his Whizzer the perfect “pretty boy.” They have tense, testosterone-laden arguments as Marvin tries to force the carefree Whizzer into traditional wifely duties.

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Block is poignantly sympathetic as Marvin’s exasperated ex-wife Trina, perplexed by the collapse of her family and fed up with “the happy men who rule the world.” She’s especially comical in her despairing tour de force rendition of “I’m Breaking Down,” distractedly waving a large knife while forcefully hacking up bananas. Brandon Uranowitz is nebbishly charming as Mendel, Marvin’s guilty psychiatrist.

Anthony Rosenthal is enormously appealing as Jason. His alienation worries his parents, while he’s expresses concern he’ll turn out  in “My Father’s A Homo.” Rosenthal’s small stature adds zany charm to the often-frenetic pace.

The second, darker act takes place in 1981, kicking off with “Welcome To Falsettoland” about adults needing to grow up and face the music. Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe are comforting as “the lesbians next door,” now part of Marvin’s family, as is Whizzer.

Borle finally humanizes Marvin when he tenderly sings Whizzer a love song, “What More Can I Say.” But soon, Thoms, playing Dr. Charlotte, has the unhappy task of raising the specter of AIDS in “Something Bad Is Happening.” Finn brilliantly uses musical comedy to explore what constitutes a family, while humanizing the extensive tragedy of the AIDS epidemic.

 

If only we could see the world through each other’s eyes, we could finally achieve true understanding. That eternal quest, exploited so inventively in Mary Rodgers’ 1972 book “Freaky Friday” and in the subsequent Disney film adaptations, is captured again as a delightfully spunky musical from Disney Theatrical Productions, aimed with laser focus on the lucrative pre-teen market. It’s receiving its premiere at Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater as a vehicle intended solely for licensing. No Broadway stint for this show, Disney assures.

Delivered at a lively pace by director Christopher Ashley (“Memphis”), with an uptempo pop score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”), book writer Bridget Carpenter’s story again features a warring mother and a rebellious teenage daughter who trade places on one tumultuous day. But unlike the 2003 film, this version’s mother (Heidi Blickenstaff) owns a small catering business and her high school daughter (Emma Hunton) is embroiled with her chums in a scavenger hunt. Their switcheroo is accomplished not by a restaurant’s fortune cookie but by a pair of magical hourglasses.

The show dives in quickly via the rousing opener, “Just One Day,” where mom and daughter set their tortured relationship ablaze and supporting characters are introduced.

The number ends with a fateful wrestling match over that magical heirloom hourglass.

Scenes switch briskly between the household’s kitchen, where a wedding reception is being prepped, and various high school locales, aided by set designer Beowulf Boritt’s versatile kitchen cabinets that become high school gym lockers with an easy twist by the ensemble. A minimally-appointed revolving stage is spun frequently, if only to add further pizzazz to dance numbers.

Visually and thematically, the musical borrows heavily from the Disney Channel’s afterschool programming in its reliance on bold colors, hip teen dialogue, a melting pot student body and cartoonish adults playing eager foils. For added coolness, boyfriend Adam (a likable Jason Gotay) expertly navigates the stage on a blinking hoverboard in an inventive piece of choreography.

En route to its rosy ending, the show traffics in a steady stream of wholesome messages for kids. “It’s not the knowing, it’s the learning, it’s the finding,” sings one adult. Parents sometimes lie to children “because they can,” the runaway younger brother is told. One teacher lectures her female students not to be ashamed of their bodies. Instead, “go where you never thought you could,” she exhorts blandly.

But it’s the enduring message of empathy and understanding that gives “Friday” its timeless appeal. It is exploited in this production with strong performances by leads Blickenstaff and Hunton, who are each believable in their demanding dual roles.

Accompanied by a versatile nine-piece orchestra, their delightful soprano voices are showcased in the poignant Act II number “Bring My Baby (Brother) Home.” A delightful moment for Blickenstaff comes in a closing scene when, still playing the daughter, she’s smitten by the affections of boyfriend Adam.

Among others in the cast, Signature regular Bobby Smith is a quick-change riot in multiple roles including the grandfather and biology teacher.

But “Friday” is not a perfect outing for Kitt and Yorkey. Although their 15 songs contain enjoyable melodies and stirring ensemble harmonies, they seldom deviate from the relentless pace that contributes to the show’s overall frenetic feel. Kid-friendly songs like “Busted” and “What You Got” will hit home, but others feel trapped in sameness.

Yorkey’s lyrics also lapse occasionally into static rhymes, beginning with an opening number where the angry mother and daughter exchange barbs. (“I’m perfection. Don’t need your direction,” sings daughter Ellie.) Similarly, lyrics in a second-act tune that liken women to sandwiches are occasionally, ah, unpalatable.

But such faults aren’t likely to prevent “Friday” from finding an eager audience with an age group that theaters are desperate to attract. The musical has already been added to next season’s schedules at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Cleveland Playhouse and Houston’s Alley Theater.

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