Compulsions, Secrets, and Ecstatic Polyphony: FUN HOME at Center Stage
From its opening moments, Fun Home, now being presented at Baltimore's Center Stage, provides an intricately-woven tapestry, a meditation on the various but related compulsions of the memoirist, the bric-a-brac collector, the artist, and the sexually-closeted individual, and the way these compulsions affect family lives and relationships. Shortly after the opening, another theme is added: the coming to self-identification and coming-out of a young lesbian, specifically a butch one. Much has justly been made of the landmark nature of this show as the first Broadway musical to center on the life of a lesbian and the first with both a female composer and a female lyricist/book author. Yet the magic of the show resides at least as much in the study of the compulsions explored from the opening number.
Consider what happens in the first two songs. In It All Comes Back (Opening), we first see Alison, i.e. the 43-year-old cartoonist Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir that inspired the show (Andrea Prestinaria), at her easel, contemplating Small Alison, a pint-sized younger version of herself (Molly Lyons), commanding her father Bruce (Jeffry Denman) to come and "play airplane," a game where she balances on Bruce's feet. (This moment is also the beginning of Bechdel's graphic memoir.) Summoning one's parents is of course also one of the crucial tasks of most autobiographies - but here it is supplemented by the payoff of the game for Small Alison, which is that, supported by Bruce's feet (once he responds to her summons and lies down on the floor), she imagines she "can see all of Pennsylvania." In other words, Small Alison, like the older version of herself looking on from the easel, wants to take in everything about the state and the world that surrounds her. (This moment is pictured above.) Later, Small Alison will draw a cartoon of the State of Pennsylvania in which she tries to accomplish the same panoptic feat. So in an important sense, the summoning of the father and/or his memory is the same thing as trying to see everything.
In a moment, the scene shifts, and Bruce is sorting through assorted objects he hauled out of a neighbor's barn. After tossing the "crap," significantly including a dead mouse that Alison, who we already know wants to see everything, does not feel compelled to discard, he comes across some Irish linen and a maybe-silver coffeepot, and waxes rhapsodical on the "luster" that may be revealed when he polishes it, the object being to bring himself closer to the truth and the history of the object. He sings:
I can't abide romantic notions
Of some vague long ago.
I want to know what's true,
Dig deep into who
Until now gives way to then.
This is not a casual pursuit for Bruce; this is what drives him. And, as Alison then admits, this is her compulsion as a biographer and autobiographer too. So, by no coincidence at all, the adult Alison actually still possesses these objects, which she is using to reconstruct her history. And to confirm this, she then sings, along with her father, a reprise of the lyrics just quoted.
Shortly thereafter, the scene shifts again, and in the song Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue we are now receiving an object lesson in polishing and its subtexts. The Bechdel house, it seems, embodies Bruce's compulsions writ large: a gorgeous, shiny structure reconstructed by Bruce, largely single-handedly, but maintained with enormous labor by a team of scurrying conscripts, aka Bruce's family, to wit wife Helen (Michelle Dawson), Small Alison and her brothers Christian (Liam Hamilton) and John (Jon Martens), all enslaved to Bruce's vision of the place and the appearance it creates, what "he wants, he wants, he wants!" It seems that the rest of the family's desires don't enter into it.
What drives Bruce's need to present a shiny surface? The lyrics cue us: "Everything is balanced and serene.)/ Like chaos never happens if it's never seen." So we now know there's unseen chaos, and if we haven't already figured out what it is, Alison will spell it out for us at the end of the number: "My dad ... was gay..." At the same time, Alison tells us how all this relates to her: "... and I was gay ... and I became a lesbian cartoonist." As we'll soon see, he's trying to hide his gayness, and she's trying to name and then publicize hers, and these diverging agendas will drive the action.
The compulsions to preserve, recreate, and get to underlying truths and beauties, shared to some degree by father and daughter, are the text, then, and homosexuality is the subtext, and the way these texts play out is what makes the show what Bechdel subtitled her memoir: "A Family Tragicomic." I have gone to this length about the first twelve minutes or so of Fun Home (which runs about an hour and three quarters without an intermission) to underscore its thematic richness, even before the lesbian story comes to the fore.
And yes, there is a gorgeous coming-of-age lesbian narrative presented here as well. We follow as Small Alison chafes at conventionally girlish attire and is gleefully thunderstruck at seeing "an old-school butch" delivery woman with short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots and a ring of keys, and as Medium Alison (Laura Darrell), a freshman at Oberlin, figures out she's gay, joins the gay campus group, and has her first, rapturous love affair with Joan, a fellow-student (Shannon Tyo). Of course, it's hard but doable to tell her parents, but the really hard part for her will prove to be their failure to respond directly to her revelation. Blissed out as she is by her successful emergence into sexual self-awareness, Medium Alison will fail to respond directly and in timely fashion to the tragedy gathering in her family. It will be left to the mature Alison, summoning her memories at the end, to make a full, if untimely, response to her parents' unhappiness. And, characteristic of the intricate craftsmanship of the musical, that summons, Flying Away (Finale), is a reprise of the opening number, returning to the initial musical and lyrical themes, in an ecstatic polyphonic trio of the three Alisons, singing together for the first time. (Composer Jeanine Tesori's music reaches its apogee here, but is beautiful and urgent throughout.)
The hard-fought five-year creative process that lay behind this show has been chronicled in various places, and seems to be reflected in the way that the show starts and finishes. Alison at the outset refers to herself as "forty-three and stuck," but we don't get to see Alison herself stuck; to the contrary, she seems to be luminously able to bring all the elements of memory back together to produce Fun Home, her memoir. And the polyphonic trio at the end seems ecstatic not because of what has happened in Alison's life (we are shown and told nothing of what befell her in all the long years after the climax of her parents' tragedy, so there's nothing to rejoice or mourn over) but because of the success of Alison's effort to pull her memories together and return amidst them to the joy of playing airplane with her dad.
We can certainly empathize with the creative rejoicing at the end; what Tesori and book-and-lyricist Lisa Kron had to do with Bechdel's book, if not quite the kind of radical reconstruction that, for instance, turned James Michener's collection of short stories into South Pacific, is still remarkable. Focuses changed; plot points were subtly altered; Bechdel's wry commentary was mostly erased, as were extended critical dialogues with earlier literary works. Other things were added, notably a big comic relief number for the children in the style of the Jackson Five, mordantly if exuberantly advertising the funerary services that Bruce and the home provided. The adaptations were vital, resulting in a triumphantly tight work that deserved and won five Tonys, including Best Musical.
Center Stage's current production has done the show proud, very nearly the equivalent of the Broadway show. In its Broadway run, the musical played at the Circle in the Square, one of only two Broadway theaters with thrust stages, with the action on the floor and the spectators ranged above it, with excellent sightlines from most seats. I was wondering how the show would come off on a different kind of stage. Center Stage has staged it in flexible space of the upstairs Head Theater, with a thrust stage that places the action above much of the audience. Sure enough, some of the sightlines are no longer as good, but in other respects the staging works as well. Director Hana S. Sharif and Choreographer Jaclyn Miller seem to bring out every nuance as the show briskly progresses.
The cast, like all Center Stage casts, is uniformly excellent. It is hard to quarrel with casting choices like Molly Lyons, who has the voice of the nine-year-old she is, but the pizzazz and presence of a veteran belter, or Andrea Prestinario, whose slightly weary tones, and engaged but wary way of looking at the action going on around her are so very reminiscent of Beth Malone's, who originated the role of Alison. Nor can I avoid mentioning Michelle Dawson's awe-inspiring delivery of Helen's big song Days and Days. Still, let me repeat a frequent observation of mine in these pages, which I would omit were there not now a new Artistic Director at the company. It would be nice if more of the players were Center Stage veterans with local roots, in this, allegedly "the State Theater of Maryland" which, owing to casting, ofttimes feels like nothing more than Off Broadway South. There is a deep pool of talent in this area which Center Stage too often ignores. Once upon a time Center Stage nurtured a stable of professionals who, while never close to the exclusive source of performers, would grace its stage repeatedly and either had or developed local ties; it would be nice to see this pattern return, even at the possible cost of the foregone utterly spot-on casting choice from time to time.
One other thought. It is good to see Center Stage doing musicals. As jazz is to music, so is the musical to the theater: the particularly American contribution to the art form. It goes without saying that Center Stage should continue its primary focus on plays, but to leave out musicals would be neglecting something important, and Center Stage's recent forays into the genre (including Next to Normal, Marley, and SOUL) have been impressive and welcome.
In sum, this is a major work of art, in a quintessentially American genre, an important representation of an under-represented group that advances understanding and dialogue, and beautifully produced. Audiences should embrace this production.
Fun Home, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Hana S. Sharif, through February 24, at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202. Tickets $20-$79 at 41-332-0033 or https://www.centerstage.org/ . Adult situations.
Photo credit: Bill Geenen.