a theatre, film & pop culture review
One must give credit — lots of it — for ambition and admirable intentions. Such is the case with Fun Home, the new musical by Lisa Kron (Well) and Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name being presented at the Public Theater after a workshop production last year.
Narrated by a 43-year-old Alison (Beth Malone), Fun Home travels back and forth between Small Alison, a tomboyish 8-year-old (bright-eyed charmer Sydney Lucas) who prefers drawing cartoons to “real art” and refuses to wear a dress when she feels more confident and comfortable in her bell bottoms, and Medium Alison, an uncertain but bright 19-year-old (a beautifully awkward Alexandra Socha) just entering college and discovering her sexuality and independence from her family. The catalyst of this exploration of the past is not nostalgia, but her father’s unexpected death. A brilliant, but volatile man, Bruce (a coolly tormented and distant-as-ever Michael Cerveris) was the funeral home director and English teacher of their small town, and an exacting father to Alison and her two brothers. When Alison finally comes out to her parents, her father’s response, just four months later, is to kill himself — not due to Alison’s sexuality, but to his own.
David Zinn’s ’70s costumes and mansion-as-museum set are spot-on, and though Sam Gold’s direction lacks a sharp focus — the opening is especially muddled, and those father-daughter driving scenes weirdly give off a How I Learned to Drive vibe — the cast is emotionally sharp under his delicate guidance, if underused in places. Judy Kuhn’s quietly resentful wife is relegated to the periphery until her single song of dissatisfaction, and the young boys (the delightful Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale) get the short shrift. But this is Alison’s story, and 2/3 of it is realized gloriously.
Lisa Kron’s astute book doesn’t quite know what to do with Alison-as-narrator. She’s our guide and our Greek Chorus (in a lovely ode to the original graphic memoir form, she sometimes speaks in “captions”), moving us between decades and filling in the emotional blanks of what she didn’t know then but does now. Beth Malone’s adult Alison is wonderfully ironic and self-aware, but we’re kept at arms-length, never really invited into her world to meet the person that became of Small and Medium Alison. But those two, those sweet, smart young women struggling to find their way and themselves, grab you hard and pull you in, holding on so tightly that you suffer their aches and celebrate their joys just as viscerally as they do. When Medium Alison elatedly shouts she’s “changed her major to Sex with Joan,” there’s a desperate urge to declare, “Yes, yes! Me too!” The performances are emotionally, beautifully complex and a testament to Kron’s deeply-felt and instinctual libretto, which is matched by Tesori’s intricate score. There are rare moments of misfire — the distracting flash and humor of a Partridge Family homage, an an overall feeling that the musical should move us more than it ultimately does — but this is the sound of musical theatre we’ve been missing: melodic, sweeping and varied, built on a classically complex structure around characters wholly deserving of our time and sympathies.
But Fun Home is ultimately, thankfully, more than all its moving parts. It is a musical written entirely by women about women, and while there is love and heartbreak woven throughout, our female protagonist(s) are groundbreaking as existing not just apart from romance, but apart from men. In a theatrical form that caters to heterosexuality — despite the large influence by gay men and the occasional insights into their experiences (Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots) — Fun Home feels quietly revolutionary in its exploration of a girl’s relationship with her father and herself. And yes, vitally, Alison is the first butch-lesbian leading lady, and while that focus doesn’t faze most Off-Broadway theatre fans, a middle-aged couple walked out of the performance I saw (just after, significantly, the “change my major to Sex with Joan” scene), and while “Ring of Keys” — Small Alison’s wide-eyed, jubilant realization of a butch mail carrier’s beauty — should be moving, the titular line, in context, elicited laughter from many. Kron has said she’d struggled with a description that wouldn’t be a trigger for a straight audience, but whether she or we failed Alison in that moment is not as important as what was accomplished for her as a whole; and the pivotal Fun Home accomplishes quite a lot.