May 6, 2015

"Fun Home" Expands the Territory that Truly Ambitious Musicals Can Now Explore

The contests for this year’s theater awards are so tight—and so many of the nominees truly worthy—that I hardly know where to cast my allegiance. And that’s especially true in the category of Best Musical, which has developed into a three-way showdown.

I’ve already written about An American in Paris (click here for my review) and Something Rotten! (click here for my thoughts on that one), each earning its berth by accomplishing precisely what it set out to do. So, now I’m going to focus on Fun Home, which, like An American in Paris, drew 12 Tony nominations.

I first saw Fun Home about three years ago in a workshop production down at the Public Theater but while I admired its ambition, I wasn’t particularly moved so I skipped the 2013 off-Broadway run at the Public. But the word-of-mouth about it was so enthusiastic that I was eager to see the Broadway production that is now running at Circle in the Square. And this time, I think I got it: this is a remarkable show.

As you probably know, Fun Home is a musical memory play based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. The book drew from her experience of coming out as a lesbian and discovering that her father Bruce was a closeted gay man, who, we learn right at the start, committed suicide within weeks of finding out about his daughter’s sexuality (click here for a Q&A with Bechdel).

Needless to say, this is not your typical musical comedy material and book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori raise the degree of difficulty even higher by using three actresses to portray Bechdel at various stages of her life.

The narrative is held together by the fortysomething Alison, who attempts to understand her father and her relationship to him by remembering, drawing and commenting on scenes from their life together, particularly her early years growing up in the small Pennsylvania town where Bruce was a high school English teacher, part-time funeral director (the family’s nickname for the funeral home gives the show its title), father of three and anguished seducer of young men.

His only daughter, Small Allison, as the play calls her, is a tomboy, who hates wearing dresses, loves drawing and has feelings she doesn’t quite understand. It’s not until she gets to college and becomes Middle Alison that she puts it altogether.

This sounds like grim goings. But it isn’t. Kron has written a book that is smart, often funny and familiar to anyone who has struggled to understand a remote parent, gay or not.

Meanwhile, Tesori’s score deftly navigates the line between the commercial music she wrote for Shrek: The Musical and the art songs she created for Tony Kushner's memory play Caroline, or Change: it’s equal parts playful tunes (there are some amusing homages to the bubblegum pop of the ‘70s) and tone poems that elegantly express the characters’ inner yearnings.

Director Sam Gold isn’t known for musicals but, as he’s proven in his collaborations with the playwright Annie Baker, he’s a master illuminator of new works and his staging here is first-rate, creating scenes in which even the unspoken is eloquently articulated.

He’s also assembled an incredible cast. Michael Cerveris transforms himself so completely that he's almost unrecognizable as a man tormented by the passions he can’t display but also can’t control (click here to read an interview with the actor). And Judy Kuhn is equally good as his wife, a woman working hard to juggle compassion, shame and resentment.

But best of all may be Sydney Lucas, who at just 11 years-old has been with the show since the workshop production I saw. She owns the role now and you can see the mind of her Small Alison at work as she pieces together the answers to the questions she doesn’t yet know to ask. Lucas' Tony nomination isn't a token of encouragement to a promising kid, it's recognition of a richly-developed performance (click here to read a profile of her).

Still since Fun Home's earliest days, some observers have questioned whether the general public will embrace a show about a gay family (click here for one of those discussions) but at this time when the Supreme Court is deliberating over the legitimacy of gay marriage, it seems just the right moment for a show that bears testimony to why people must be allowed to be who they are.  And it also shows how musicals can be all they should be.

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