BWW Reviews: Brave and Groundbreaking FUN HOME Transfers to Broadway
When reviewing the original Public Theater production of Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori's brave and adventurous new musical, Fun Home in October of 2013, I expressed hesitation to use the word "groundbreaking," as it tends to be overused in musical theatre.
After a year and a half to mull it about and being entralled all over again by director Sam Gold's Broadway transfer, I hesitate no longer. Fun Home is an important musical; one of the best Broadway has seen in many years. And yes, in terms of subject matter, its non-traditional form and the fact that it's mounted as a commercial Broadway production, Fun Home is a groundbreaking musical that demands to be seen by anyone who takes the art form seriously.
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.
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, who won an Obie for her performance at The Public, plays Alison as a child and Emily Skeggs, who joined the Off-Broadway run after its opening, 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. Fun Home was performed on a proscenium stage at The Public, but designer David Zinn's set has now been adapted for Circle In The Square's in the round seating (an oval, actually), providing a spacious rendering of the Victorian home that Bruce is continually restoring.
Through her recollections, we see Alison and Bruce 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 (Oscar Williams and Zell Steele Morrow 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 an emotionally overwhelmed college-aged Alison in a perfectly realized number, sung by Skeggs with wide-eyed wonder 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.
Though Fun Home deals with some painful issues, it is ultimately an uplifting piece that will send many from the theatre wiping away tears of joy.