Thursday, April 23, 2015

Welcome to the Fun Home

Review: Fun Home

Beth Malone (left) as the fully grown Alison reflects on her younger self (Emily Skeggs) in the new Broadway musical Fun Home.

There's much to admire about Fun Home, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's daring new chamber musical currently playing Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. This intimate story of a lesbian cartoonist's coming of age and her complex relationship with her father tackles aspects of the human experience rarely portrayed onstage, and Tesori's bravura score and Kron's nuanced book push the boundaries of the musical form into interesting and even surprising new places. But the show falls just shy of taking flight thanks to a couple of misguided dramaturgical choices that may accurately reflect the protagonist's life but don't make for the most effective theatre.

Based on the graphic memoir of the same name, Fun Home follows Alison Bechdel at three different stages of her life (for those who are interested, this is the same Alison Bechdel who coined the famed Bechdel test to evaluate gender bias in fictional media). The eldest of three children, the headstrong Alison was raised by her actress mother and closeted gay father, who also served as director of the Bechdel Family Funeral Home. After struggling with her sexuality throughout her adolescent and young adult years, the now grown Alison returns to her family home to reminisce about her upbringing and try to find closure to her relationship with her now deceased father.

It is an intensely personal story, undermined by the fact that it too clearly telegraphs where it's headed. Alison spells out exactly what kind of man her father was within the first couple of scenes, and unfortunately nothing in the following 90 minutes broadens that description or deepens it. While observing Alison's interactions with her family at different stages of her life remains engaging, all the characters stay much the same as when we meet them, which robs the show of the thrill of discovery. There is a slight but crucial difference between watching characters go on a journey and taking that journey with them, and unfortunately Fun Home tends towards the former when it would be so much more affecting to do the latter. The most maddening thing is that by removing just a few lines of expository dialogue at the beginning, that sense of discovery could be restored and Fun Home would be one of the most emotionally stirring musicals in years. (Imagine if Next to Normal spelled out exactly what was going on with Diana and her family by its third song; the show would still be very good, but it wouldn't have the emotional impact which garnered it universal acclaim.)

That said, this slight but crucial mistake doesn't take away from the brilliance of much of the writing, even if it does dampen our emotional involvement. Tesori has written her most accomplished score to date, weaving a variety of styles and musical genres into a cohesive, stimulating whole. The repeated melodic motifs are smartly implemented, and there are times when the moment to moment writing is so strong it makes you momentarily forget that you've already been told where this is all headed. "Changing My Major" is the purest expression of the joy and terror of a first sexual encounter ever put on stage. "Ring of Keys" is a wonderfully pure portrait of a young girl first realizing she's different but isn't alone, with Lisa Kron's deceptively simple lyrics framing a bevy of deep observations in the voice of a 10 year old child. These introspective character songs are interspersed with comedy pastiches like the throwback "Come to the Fun Home" (hilariously performed by the three elementary age Bechdel children) or the Partridge Family-esque "Raincoat of Love."

Tesori's score meshes seamlessly with Kron's highly nuanced book, in which the dialogue scenes are more akin to something you'd see in a play than your typical musical. In a medium where most things are overtly stated, a lot of the most interesting moments in Fun Home focus on what's not being said. Kron's dialogue is naturalistic and yet specific enough to give scenes dramatic shape, and that voice carries over into her largely unrhymed lyrics, further contributing to the show's conversational feel. Kron also handles the framing device of adult Alison narrating her life with aplomb, providing enough thematic connective tissue to prevent the constant shifting of time periods from feeling chaotic or confusing. Like Tesori's music, Kron's book is at its weakest when it falls into the habits that characterize more traditional musicals, making something explicit when the authors and audience are smart enough to handle a more implicit approach.

The cast is uniformly strong, effortlessly navigating the musical's tonal shifts and unusually nuanced approach. Beth Malone has the central and often thankless role of the fully grown Alison, who narrates the evening's events and watches them unfold with the audience. Malone doesn't really get to interact with her fellow performers until she replaces her younger self during the climatic "Telephone Wire" scene, when all the simmering intensity of her performance finally boils over in a desperate plea to be heard. As the youngest version of Alison (dubbed Small Alison in the program), newcomer Sydney Lucas dazzles in a beautifully naturalistic performance. Her delivery of the aforementioned "Ring of Keys" is first rate, and Lucas' large and knowing eyes convey dozens of thoughts and feelings her character isn't quite sure how to express. And Emily Skeggs perfectly portrays Alison during her formative college years, capturing the yearning and passion of someone who has finally given themselves permission to be the person they always wanted to be.

Michael Cerveris does fantastic work as Alison's father Bruce, virtually disappearing inside his character's nebbish skin. Bruce is a complex, deeply conflicted man, who like his daughter is struggling to express himself in a world that isn't really ready to acknowledge him. Although he fits the distant father archetype, Cerveris makes it abundantly clear that Bruce loves his daughter and feels a particularly strong kinship with her, even if his own identity issues prevent him from adequately expressing that love. It's unfortunate we don't get more of Bruce's side of the story, although this makes sense given that the musical is told almost exclusively from Alison's point of view; she wouldn't be privy to the reasoning behind Bruce's choices, particularly given his untimely death. It's also unfortunate that Judy Kuhn as Alison's mother Helen is largely relegated to the sidelines in favor of the Alison/Bruce relationship. Not only is Kuhn's voice heavenly, but her expert handling of the wistful "Days and Days" late in the show really makes you wish she had more of a presence throughout.

Director Sam Gold has done an excellent job shepherding this material to the stage, including seamlessly adapting to the Circle in the Square's famed and often problematic in the round staging. You'd never know the show was originally mounted in a more traditional proscenium setting during its Off-Broadway run, which goes to show how thoroughly Gold and his design team have rethought their approach. David Zinn's set makes excellent use of the stage, and combined with Ben Stanton's lights really help define the somewhat nebulous playing space into distinct and recognizable areas. Zinn's costumes also perfectly capture the disco-era setting of most of the musical's action, with a mighty assist from hair and wig designer Paul Huntley's delightful 70s bobs.

Overall, Fun Home is an incredibly strong and at times provocative piece of theatre. It pushes the boundaries of the Broadway musical in both form and content, giving voice to a segment of the community that rarely sees themselves portrayed seriously and honestly onstage. And yet the lack of dramatic tension caused by so clearly laying out the show's plot in the opening moments keeps it from fully engaging on an emotional level, an incredibly frustrating situation given the obviously intelligent and talented artists involved. Fun Home definitely deserves to be seen, a very good show that doesn't quite achieve the greatness one would hope.

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