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‘Falsettos’ Broadway Review: Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells Are Dreamboat Casting

The two leads score in every way possible. But William Finn’s musical takes ”gay“ back to the Irving Berlin definition of the word

It’s very unlikely that William Finn will ever get a better production of his groundbreaking musical “Falsettos” than the revival that opened Monday at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Top among its assets are leading men Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells, who play the not-always-well-matched lovers Marvin and Whizzer.

Borle and Rannells have made their mark on Broadway playing outrageous musical-comedy caricatures, and doing so with true brilliance. Here, they’ve put away their alpha comics, and without losing any of our rapt attention, portray identifiable human beings.

They’re amply supported by Stephanie J. Block and Brandon Uranowitz, displaying great comic chops in the role of Marvin’s neurotic shrink, who falls in love and marries Marvin’s ex-wife. As played by Block, this twice-married woman never turns into a masochist, in part, because she unleashes one of the most sumptuous sopranos to be heard on Broadway in recent memory.

Finn’s quartet of characters establishes a most unusual family (especially for act one’s time frame, 1979) under James Lapine‘s astute direction. They’ve also been blessed by an innovative set by David Rockwell. His arresting design is part Rubik’s Cube, which keeps being disassembled and reassembled into new shapes by the cast, and part Manhattan backdrop that recalls the wall sculptures of Louise Nevelson.

Now for the unfortunate news. If ever Disney made a family movie musical about homosexuals, “Falsettos” would be the one to start with. This observation is not meant as a compliment. “Gay” here is gay in the Irving Berlin sense of the word. Marvin and Whizzer, as well as the lesbian lovers (Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe) who live next door in the musical’s second act and serve only as a device to introduce the show’s AIDS theme, define the word “anodyne” despite Borle and Rannells’ best efforts.

Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” has taken its knocks over the years, but one could never say that its characters lack edge or didn’t reflect the problems of being gay in the year of its premiere, 1968.

What Crowley’s “Boys” is to gay plays Finn’s 1981 musical “March of the Falsettos” (the first act of “Falsettos”) is to gay tuners. To his credit, Finn went where Stephen Sondheim dared not. In fact, Marvin in “March of the Falsettos” emerged as what might have happened to Bobby in “Company” had he married one of his three girlfriends, gotten the inevitable divorce, and gone on to find his true self.

And there were other comparisons to Sondheim at the time. Despite the critical reverence heaped upon him today, Sondheim in the 1970s was considered a first-rate lyricist and a less-than-gifted composer who should have gone back to working with Jule Styne. Anyone who doubts that assessment needs to reread the New York Times reviews by Clive Barnes (in the daily, followed by Richard Eder) and Walter Kerr (in the Sunday edition). Fortunately, things changed with the arrival of Frank Rich at the Times, and Sondheim’s reputation as a composer soon caught up to his always-exalted status as a lyricist.

The same, unfortunately, has not happened to Finn the composer. His one other hit musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” succeeds due to Rachel Sheinkin’s extraordinary book and Finn’s snappy lyrics. With “Spelling Bee” and “Falsettos” (the second act derives from Finn’s 1990 musical, “Falsettoland,” book by Lapine), Finn often introduces a ildly intriguing motive only for those few notes to get lost on their stroll down Tin Pan Alley.

His emphasis on the percussive often dominates, usually in service to some bouncy syncopation from a pre-“Seinfeld” sitcom. The exceptions are the lovely “Trina’s Song” and the male lovers’s stirring final duet, “What Would I Do?” (Borle and Rannels’s only flaw as a couple is that one of them isn’t a baritone.) The problem is, two good songs out of 35 in a sung-through musical just doesn’t cut it.

But where “Falsettos” most disappoints isn’t the music but the book’s revisionism. The years of the musical, 1979 to 1982, were some of the most transformative, painfully difficult, and misunderstood in the evolution of the LGBT community. Finn and Lapine instead present a sunny, ultimately accepting world where being Jewish on the island of Manhattan is the far greater challenge for Marvin and Whizzer.

Never do these two men wake up to read a New York Times editorial (not an op-ed, mind you) on the necessity of gay teachers to hide their sexual orientation. Never do health-care workers refuse to enter Whizzer’s hospital room, much less not change his bed sheets, even though this young man is dying at the onset of the AIDS crisis. It’s like “Fiddler on the Roof” without the pogroms. Finn and Lapine put the “false” in “Falsettos.”

Robert Hofler, TheWrap's lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," "Party Animals," and "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos." His latest book, "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne," is now in paperback.