Review: Kron and Tesori's FUN HOME a Thrilling and Brave New Musical
The word "groundbreaking" tends to be overused in musical theatre. Often it's utilized to describe a show playing in a mainstream venue that does what lesser-publicized shows have been doing for the past ten years.
So I hesitate to jump the gun and call Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori's (music) brave and adventurous new musical, Fun Home, groundbreaking, though I can't name another that deals in this kind of subject matter and successfully presents it in such a non-traditional form.
Based on the 2006 autobiographical graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel - who broke ground herself in the late 80s with her strip, Dykes to Watch Out For - Fun Home is resoundingly original and thrilling in its execution, while remaining a gentle, introspective and touching theatre piece. Not since Falsettos has the term "family musical" been so lovingly and intelligently redefined.
Director Sam Gold's beautifully tender and finely-acted production begins with a glimpse of successful cartoonist Alison (a warm and secure Beth Malone) at age 43. Throughout the evening we see her memories jump back and forth between her 1970s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town and her sexual awakening while attending Oberlin College, as she strives to caption every moment. Sydney Lucas plays Alison as a child and Alexandra Socha essays her as a college freshman.
"I leapt out of the closet and four months later my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck," explains the author, as she revisits and tries to understand the lies she grew up with.
Her father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris), was a closeted gay man who taught high school English and ran the family funeral home business (the "fun home"), but whose real passion was interior design. Set designer David Zinn provides a spacious rendering of the Victorian home that Bruce is continually restoring.
Through her recollections, we see the pair bonding through a love of literature and his attempts to share his interest in the treasures he finds at garage sales and junk yards, but we also see his controlling fits of rage, particularly when little Alison displays any diversion from his ideal of a cultured, traditionally feminine girl.
Bruce's wife, Helen (Judy Kuhn), who gave up her acting career to raise a family (Noah Hinsdale and Griffin Birney play Alison's siblings), tries maintaining a happy face through it all, though she's aware of her husband's dalliances with teenage boys.
Tesori and Kron have created a wonderfully conversational chamber score, played by an eight-piece orchestra, that seamlessly blends from dialogue to singing. The lyrics are plainspoken, but engaging and dramatic; clearly defining Alison in three different voices. Tesori's music is appropriately moody and reflective, but that's not to say that there aren't some top-notch theatre songs to be enjoyed.
"I'm changing my major to Joan," sings a helplessly giddy college-aged Alison in a perfectly realized number, sung by Socha with infectiously neurotic joy as her character stares at her still-sleeping lover (Roberta Colindrez) after her first sexual experience.
Lucas, who gives an exceptionally strong and honest performance for a young actress, has a marvelous soliloquy song about her startled fascination while seeing a butch woman for the first time. In her world, the happiest of families are those that she sees singing together on television, inspiring a terrific Jackson 5-style number for the kids and a bubble-gum, Partridge Family-type song and dance for the whole company, presented as "Bobby Jeremy and the Susan Deys."
Cerveris contributes one more reason to consider him one of the best singing actors around, skillfully balancing Bruce's playfully loving side with the protective barriers he puts up. There's always a sense of discomfort in his portrayal, which contrasts nicely with each Alison's total acceptance for what she is. Kuhn bottles up Helen's suffering for most of the evening until her thrilling outburst in a song where she warns her daughter against sacrificing her own happiness for someone else's.
Groundbreaking or not, Fun Home demands to be seen by anyone who takes musical theatre seriously.