Fun Home (Circle in the Square, May 2015)

Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Oscar Williams, Zell Steele Morrow, Michael Cerveris in Fun Home

I missed Fun Home the musical at the Public, but saw the Broadway production a week ago. I’m lucky I went when I did! When I bought my ticket in early April, I had my pick of seats, but that’s no longer the case – the show is now officially standing room only at least through the Tony Awards, and the theatre was full of that special expectant buzz that signifies An Event.

I can see why. It’s a work of exceptional originality and achievement, and I left the theatre full of admiration for pretty much every element. I should also probably admit that I didn’t love it – by which I mean that it didn’t grab me personally in the way that it so clearly did for a huge part of the audience. I’m not sure I can explain it, but I’ll try.

First, though – the admiration. It starts with the almost miraculous way Lisa Kron’s libretto captures the flavor of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, which I would have thought pretty much untranslatable. Using three actors to play Bechdel at different ages (Sydney Lucas is Small Alison, Emily Skeggs is Middle Alison, and Beth Malone the adult) works seamlessly, and defines from the start the sense that this is a tale where observation was a major element. Fun Home deals mostly with Alison’s coming of age as a lesbian, a narrative that is juxtaposed against the story of her father, a closeted gay man who ultimately commits suicide.

Sydney Lucas (Small Alison) and Beth Malone (Alison) in Fun Home

As that story suggests, this is not your typical musical (if such a thing even exists anymore), and I greatly admired (that word again) the nuanced, compassionate, unflinching, judgment-free way we came to know Bechdel and her family through music and dialogue. It’s a story that includes a lot of pain – the beautiful song, “Days and Days” for Alison’s mother, is a particular heartbreaker – but also considerable joy and self-discovery. The audience goes crazy for two numbers about Alison’s growing self-awareness – “Changing My Major,” sung by Middle A, and “Ring of Keys,” for Small A. (The former is my favorite piece in Fun Home; the latter may be the biggest crowd-pleaser.)

Video: “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home

The show is also beautifully performed – in addition to the three Alisons, all of them terrific, there’s a bravely unsympathetic turn by Michael Cerveris as Bruce, the father, and a beautifully sung one by Judy Kuhn as mother Helen. All five performers are nominated for Tonys. (I’m not sure it’s possible to choose among them, and Fun Home makes an excellent case for why at least sometimes there should be a category for ensemble cast.)

Director Sam Gold puts it all together in a way that somehow feels utterly authentic and natural, and he and his design team – David Zinn (sets and costumes), Ben Stanton (lighting), and Kai Harada (sound) – also do some dazzling things with the changing configuration of the house, which, after all, is the title character… and a significant metaphor throughout the show.

Their work is more striking for having transitioned staging styles – from a more standard, frontal arrangement at the Public, to the theatre-in-the-round space at Circle. There are a few costs to this – some moments are going to look awkward no matter where one is sitting, and a key scene that takes place in a car is undermined by the use of turntable. Sound balances are also problematic. But in the plus column, the round configuration emphasizes the constant flow of action. It also feels energetic and out-of-the-box, in a way that’s very right for Fun Home.

So… with all this, why did I admire it, rather than love it? Some of it, frankly, is Jeanine Tesori’s score. With notable exceptions, including the songs already mentioned, much of it seems more serviceable than inspired, and it’s not a musical language that appeals to me. I also found the mother’s character too one-note. More generally, there’s so much storytelling going on – including the three narrators – that only intermittently did I really connect with any particular character.

But I’m more than willing to acknowledge that, my personal reservations (quirks, really) aside, Fun Home is an extraordinary work, and a must-see for anyone interested in where musical theatre is going. In fact, it joins a select group of shows written post-2000 (others are The Light in the Piazza and Grey Gardens) that I look forward to teaching!

Categories: Criticism, New York, Theater

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