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Broadway Reviews

Fun Home

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 19, 2015

Fun Home Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book & lyrics by Lisa Kron. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Directed by Sam Gold. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Scenic & costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Kai Harada. Orchestrations by John Clancy. Music Director Chris Fenwick. Music Coordinator Antoine Silverman. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, Robert Colindrez, Zell Steele Morrow, Joel Perez, Oscar Williams.
Theatre: Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway between Broadway and 8th Avenue at 50th Street
Running time: 1 hours 45 minutes, with no intermission
Audience : May be inappropriate for 13 and under. (Adult subject matter.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tues 7 pm, Wed 2:00 pm, Wed 8 pm, Th 8 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm.
Tickets: Telecharge

Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, and Emily Skeggs
Photo by Joan Marcus

Not everything that's beautiful from a distance retains its captivating allure when seen close up. With buildings, people, relationships, you name it, zooming in eventually becomes unavoidable, and when that happens you must rely on reality—and not your distorted perception of it—to either carry your affection... or not. This idea is very much a central concern in Fun Home, the Lisa Kron–Jeanine Tesori musical that just opened at Circle in the Square—and not always in fortuitous ways.

First and foremost, it's the basis for Kron's book and lyrics, Tesori's music, and the autobiographical Alison Bechdel graphic novel that inspired it. Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1960s and `70s, Alison (whom we see in youth, adolescence, and adulthood) is forever being forced or guided into an existence that's not organically hers. Heteronormativity, for example—she knows from a very early age that she prefers women, crew cuts, and boys' clothing. Or the ironic fantasy of a perfect family, which seemed to cohere from the outside but was shattered when dad, an English teacher, funeral director, and a fan of “historic restoration,” died after walking in front of a truck.

It's only with many years of perspective that the adult Alison (Beth Malone), now a self-described “lesbian cartoonist,” is able to fully unpack what's made her who she is. The musical guides us through her entire formative history, letting us see how the seeds planted in her youngest self (Sydney Lucas) took bloom in the woman she became when she went college and discovered herself (Emily Skeggs), all under the troubled, toxic eyes of dad, Bruce (Michael Cerveris), who was himself gay, and mom, Helen (Judy Kuhn), who spent her marriage trying to hold together the slowly dissolving façade. Additional characters, including the other Bechdel children (Oscar Williams and Zell Steele Morrow), dad's series of young love interests (all played by Joel Perez), and Alison's first girlfriend, Joan (Roberta Colindrez), drift into and out of the narrative just as they might memory.

Michael Cerveris
Photo by Joan Marcus

The adult Alison's lens is all-seeing and all-interpreting, with each of these new appearances and their associated developments focusing more on the actuality that exists beneath the romance of recollection. By the time we approach the conclusion, little remains of Alison's glimmeringly nostalgic view of her past: The word she sings early on, “Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue / See how we polish and we shine / We rearrange and realign / Everything is balanced and serene / Like chaos never happens if it's never seen,” are reprised by her mother with a devastated awareness of just how false they've always been, and the havoc they've wreaked on everyone around her.

For this story not quite like any other musical's, Kron and Tesori have provided thoroughly new and thoroughly exciting work that ranks among their very best to date. I'd love to be able to praise either alone, but that's not really possible. The elements script and score are so intricately interwoven that the result is an ever-shifting collage of emotion that obscures through natural processes where one ends and the other begins. Yes, the enforced sunniness of the earlier scenes gradually gives way to the darker skies of bitter fact, and yes there are showstoppers—the Bechdel kids' raucous imagined commercial for the family's funeral home (the source of the title, by the way), Alison's ecstasy at discovering her sexuality first in essence and later in fact). But these are facets of, not deviations from, writing that's tighter and more cohesive than Broadway usually bears to even acknowledge these days.

It's all communicated by an uncommonly wonderful cast that meets (and strives to exceed) the myriad challenges before them. Kuhn is superb, crafting a wall of sullenness behind an aching smile so that you experience all of Helen's many contradictions before you truly know them, and the uneasy authority of her singing is a flawless match for a woman who's hardly sure of the place she holds in her own life. Similar conflict is just as evident in Cerveris's rich portrayal of Bruce: His devotion to Alison is total, but he can't escape his secret yearnings or the conformity that's eating him alive.

Lucas, Skeggs, and Malone create a gleaming vision of a single character growing more into herself with each passing year. Malone's targeted coolness, Skeggs's sense of infinite wonder, and Lucas's unashamed precociousness are all equal in their dynamism while gloriously distinct on their own. And the other supporting performers are practically as good, even if their roles are less expansive.

Judy Kuhn
Photo by Joan Marcus

But despite all that's excellent about Fun Home, it stops significantly short of being an excellent musical. In Bechdel's book, her gently alienating style of drawing contrasted beautifully with the heartbreaking subject matter creating a heightening effect that Kron and Tesori have not been able to effectively approximate. And director Sam Gold, who's better than almost anyone today at making minute psychological nuances sweepingly theatrical, hasn't imbued the writing with the size it needs to feel as though it's about more than one gay woman growing up and discovering herself. Paradoxically, the closer Gold brings us, the more we're pushed away.

When Fun Home played at The Public Theater in late 2013 (with mostly the same leads), the proscenium Newman Theater allowed Gold extensive freedom to capture (or at least suggest) a more magic-friendly aesthetic that highlighted sumptuous, personality - defining sets from David Zinn and even haunting projections of Bechdel's drawings. Neither is possible with the audience on all four sides of the stage on Broadway, and though Zinn's sets (reduced to isolated pieces and a bit of wall) still look good (the fine lights are by Ben Stanton), you lose something significant when you can no longer see how the Bechdel house gains in grandeur even as the family inside it disintegrates. (The projections have been dispensed with altogether.)

The staging seems unnecessarily busy in other ways, too, as though Gold is especially self-conscious at ensuring everyone can see the action. The bigger, more “fun” numbers (“Come to the Fun Home,” the TV-peppy “Raincoat of Love”) look messier and less electric than they used to, even though the choreographer (Danny Mefford) is the same. And Helen's defeated “Days and Days,” which Kuhn masterfully reduced to its barest essentials Off-Broadway, is more defuse given how much more she now wanders around while delivering it.

Moments like these lock you within the mechanics of theatre just when you most need to be set free. They are, however, emblematic of the evening in general: It wants to levitate while both feet are shackled to the ground, sparkle while hiding in the shadows. These are ambitious goals for an ambitious show, and Kron and Tesori have accomplished enough to make this one of the season's few must-sees if you've never seen it before. But if Fun Home shows how the illusion of mundanity can become vibrant uniqueness when allowed to flourish as it most desires, that's a transformation we're allowed to experience only from a distance.

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