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Perhaps the most over-trafficked subject matter among contemporary American dramatists is the dysfunctional family. So one of the many wonders of the haunting musical Fun Home is the unique perspective it brings to that theme, in a deeply personal story that marries the specificity of individual experience with an emotional universality that will find echoes in many of our lives. Composer Jeanine Tesori and writer-lyricist Lisa Kron have done something extraordinary here, reshaping cartoonist Alison Bechdel‘s graphic memoir into an unconventional memory play that seamlessly integrates music and drama.
Full disclosure: I’m a late convert to this show about coming out, coming of age and coming to grips with the past, having caught it midway through the fall 2013 premiere run at the Public Theater. While ecstatic reviews had built up my expectations, I came away back then admiring the creative team’s craft, and their audaciousness in tackling such nontraditional material as a musical. But Fun Home didn’t move me. Whether it’s the benefits of second-time exposure or the skill with which director Sam Gold and designer David Zinn have reconfigured the production to play in the round, intensifying its intimacy, this time I found it a beguiling experience, almost unbearably poignant at times.
Bechdel’s 2006 book is subtitled A Family Tragicomic, which is also a perfect fit for this musical adaptation. At the end of the opening song, the adult Alison (Beth Malone) looks back on her childhood spent around the family funeral home — the “fun home,” as the kids affectionately call it — and says: “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
That might seem a lot of information to divulge right off the bat, but it’s the questioning way in which Alison approaches her painful family past that makes this deftly conceived show so satisfying. To borrow from one of the song lyrics, she “rearranges and realigns,” excavating forgotten details to flesh out the grid of her comic-strip narrative until she can finally move the overlapping squares into sequential order. And while it can sometimes be a leaden dramatic device to have older characters observing their younger selves, watching Malone’s 43-year-old Alison share the stage with her 19-year-old college freshman self (Emily Skeggs) and their nine-year-old counterpart (Sydney Lucas), you start very early to see them as a single, wonderfully real character. Each performance brings something distinctive yet inextricably interrelated to the role.
For gay audiences, female or male, the depiction of discovering and embracing one’s sexual identity here will be bittersweet, funny and moving. We get to know young Alison as a girl who squirms when forced into a party dress, repeatedly removing her barrettes while quietly suggesting that a crew cut would keep her hair out of her eyes more efficiently. In one knockout song performed by Lucas with aching tenderness, we share her eye-opening thrill as an “old-school butch” delivery woman enters a luncheonette and the girl is transfixed by her swagger, her bearing and her clothes, in an interior-monologue serenade that crests with, “And your keys. Oh-oh, your ring of keys.” Another standout is “Changing My Major,” sung by Skeggs after Alison’s dizzying initiation into sex with her more evolved college girlfriend Joan (Roberta Colindrez, terrific).
Malone relives these experiences, either with an embarrassed eye roll or with the expanded understanding of hindsight, just as many of us in the audience are probably revisiting similar memories.
But while Fun Home chronicles Alison’s experience of coming out the healthy, well-adjusted way, it also deals in unflinchingly honest, unsentimental terms with the costs of repression and denial through Michael Cerveris as her closeted dad Bruce.
Again, there’s no gradual reveal here; gaydars will be set off the minute Bruce enters and starts gushing over the quality of genuine Irish linen. But this is a searing performance, full of pathos and compassion, even as Cerveris dares to make his character unsympathetic, often withholding affection or approval from his children. He explores the corrosive conflicts of a man who wants to be a good husband and father but is prey to physical and emotional frustrations that bubble up in dangerous acts of transgression or in depressive fits of anger. To writer Kron’s enormous credit, the usual banal pop-psychology message about the importance of self-acceptance is refreshingly left unstated.
“Sometimes my dad appeared to enjoy having children,” Malone says dryly early on, in one of the captions Alison fashions for a vignette as it unfolds. We see the truth in her observation as Bruce shares his passions — for antiques or literature, for example — with his daughter. But we also see the other times, in which he declines to listen to Alison or her kid brothers (Zell Steele Morrow, Oscar Williams), instead fussing over the family’s painstakingly restored, museum-like house. Often, he drifts off in dreamy infatuation with a yard-worker, a former student from his high-school English class or the memory of an army buddy. (Joel Perez plays the various objects of Bruce’s desire.)
In one of the most shattering scenes, the preteen Alison is working on a school project depicting her family’s geography, already experimenting with a rudimentary cartoonist style. Bruce snatches it from her and, with erupting impatience, tries to steer her to his perfectionist sense of order. Other manifestations of this controlling behavior are seen when he readies the family for a Historical Society visit; he organizes the children with the same obsessive but impersonal attention he brings to the placement of a Dresden figurine or a brass candelabra.
The emotional power of moments like these is amplified by the quietly wrenching presence of Bruce’s wife Helen, played with infinite layers of bruised feeling by the superb Judy Kuhn. We witness Helen’s aptitude for music when she’s at the piano, and glean from passing mentions that she had promise as an actor when she studied in New York under Uta Hagen. We’re left to infer that appearing in local theater productions is slim consolation. Her song “Days and Days” is the sorrowful reckoning of a woman who acknowledges that the bargains she made with herself can no longer hold as she traces her own gradual disappearance.
While the overall tone of the show is one of melancholy, there are also infectious explosions of joy such as “Come to the Fun Home,” in which the kids goof off around an open casket, singing their made-up version of a TV commercial, brilliantly imagined by Tesori as a homage to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” There’s also an inspired Partridge Family riff called “Raincoat of Love,” which carries a sardonic sting, coming after the news that Bruce is seeing a court-ordered shrink. While the timeframe is never stated, these and other references start the action around 1970.
The beating heart of this quietly devastating musical is Alison’s difficult process of piecing together imperfect fragments of memory, both experienced and speculative, as she tries to understand what compelled her father to step into the path of an oncoming truck. And as she replays the last moments she spent with him, the show with subtle skill again prompts us to consider episodes in our own lives that we wish had gone differently. This capacity for transporting emotional association is the unmatched domain of intelligent musical theater. And while the melodic stretches of Tesori’s Fun Home score are interspersed with almost as many abstract passages or semi-spoken songs, it’s the organic fusion of these elements with the domestic drama that makes it so affecting.
Gold’s direction here recalls his exemplary staging of playwright Annie Baker‘s hyperrealist works in that every moment is played for absolute truth. Rearrangement is a key theme, so it’s significant that Gold’s smart use of the physical space not only overcomes the challenges of rethinking the production for in-the-round presentation, but he also uses the different layout to draw us in closer. Zinn makes furniture appear and disappear, hoisted from trapdoors in the stage floor, which has practical uses for a show with multiple settings but also makes symbolic sense given Bruce’s fixation with visual harmony and Alison’s efforts to fill in the compartments of her memory. And lighting designer Ben Stanton shows a nuanced understanding of tone, not to mention playfulness in his occasional pop-art effects or the comic-strip outlines that appear.
This production is a risky one for Broadway, where the musical landscape tends to be dominated by properties already ingrained in the mainstream consciousness. But for anyone who cares about adventurous musical theater, it’s not to be missed. Oh, and unsurprisingly, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
Cast: Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, Roberta Colindrez, Zell Steele Morrow, Joel Perez, Oscar Williams
Director: Sam Gold
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Book & lyrics: Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Set & costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Music direction: Chris Fenwick
Orchestrations: John Clancy
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Produced by the Public Theater
Presented by Fox Theatricals, Barbara Whitman, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Tom Casserly, Paula Marie Black, Latitude Link, Terry Schnuck/Jack Lane, The Forstalls, Nathan Vernon, Mint Theatricals, Elizabeth Armstrong, Jam Theatricals, Delman Whitney, Kristin Caskey & Mike Isaacson
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