At some point, a decade or so ago, mainstream New York musical theatre started taking the easy way out. Story-driven and challenging narratives gave way to the familiar. Shows (often weakly) developed around already existing pop music and fairytales, television and movies, took center stage, bringing in much needed tourist dollars. Launching a musical at all is a big enough risk, let alone one with real depth and unfamiliar tunes. However, I’ve always thought that producers have been underestimating their audiences. That if a show was smart enough, and had enough heart, that theatregoers would embrace it. I hope I’m right, because Fun Home is one of those shows that deserve a long embrace.
Playing at the beautiful Public Theater, Fun Home is a full length musical based on the graphic novel/memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel, of Dykes to Watch Out For fame. When her novel came out in 2006, it was met with much critical acclaim. The musical, with lyrics and book by Lisa Kron (5 Lesbian Brothers, Well) and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline or Change), stays very true to Bechdel’s story. It explores Alison’s coming of age, and her complicated relationship with her brilliant, closeted father Bruce. The show touches on three periods of Alison’s life: When she is a small child, a teenager on the edge of self discovery and as an adult, looking back. Tesori’s sweeping score is one of the finest I’ve heard in the past decade. Kron’s lyrics hold tight to the heart of the story, while setting up the actors for what is some of the heaviest drama currently gracing the professional stage.
Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) and her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris)
All pics courtesy PublicTheatre.org
The cast is beyond stellar, with a divine mix of Broadway legends like Michael Cerveris (Bruce) and Judy Kuhn (Helen) and rising stars, Sydney Lucas (Small Alison) and Alexandra Socha (Medium Alison). The always-excellent Cerveris, lays his soul bare as Alison’s father. Controlling and hard one moment, crumbling under the weight of his endless need the next. When Cerveris finished his closing song, “Edges of the World,” the audience sat in complete silence that was only broken by our collective exhalation. It was one of many moments I sat transfixed and breathless. Judy Kuhn makes the most of her smallish part, with her stoically beautiful portrayal of Alison’s mother, Helen. Most of the powerful moments in Fun Home occur with very little movement, which gives them a monologuesque feel. Kuhn delivers the heart wrenching “Days and Days” sitting at the dining room table. Moments that would ordinarily call for motion or staging, are left to their own, simple, emotional power. A lesser cast would not have been as impactful.
Alexandra Socha, as Medium Alison, is wonderfully awkward as a college student, exploring a world outside her small Pennsylvanian town and oppressive upbringing. Socha’s comedic timing is impeccable, and particularly evident in her funny and touching scenes with crush, Joan (Roberta Colindrez). Socha’s big number, “Changing My Major,” expertly navigates those feelings of being in love and lust for the first time. She is both terrified and exhilarated, and Socha delivers the goods with aplomb.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the show was the phenomenal performance by Sydney Lucas, who plays Small Alison. The pint size powerhouse is by far one of the most talented child actors I’ve ever seen. She’s the emotional center of the show, which is a heavy load for any actor, let alone one of no more than ten years old. However, she does it with the ease of a veteran actress three times her age. Her number “Ring of Keys” was one of the best delivered and most melodic in the show. The song will resonate with anyone who remembers what it felt like to truly see themselves reflected for the very first time.
When so many things go right in a production, the pieces that don’t exactly fit tend to stick out all the more. The integration of adult Alison, is one of the show’s challenges. Played by Beth Malone, the character is at first very exciting to see. I cannot think of another time that a butch lesbian character has been portrayed in a musical before, and the notion is thrilling. The show itself comes out of adult Alison’s memories, but the inconsistent narration and commentary pulls the audience out of the action instead of bringing us in closer. There are also times that the character just watches scenes happen, which feels voyeuristic. Malone often felt like she was just reciting her lines, and on a completely different energy level as the rest of the cast. When performing a scene next to an actor as fine as Cerveris, the dichotomy is particularly evident. I feel for Malone because she is quite talented, and most the issues surrounding her character have little to do with her.
The set is a marvel, with a rotating stage and grand, beautiful set pieces. The lighting is lovely too, creating a definitive separation in mood and intention. The small, yet mighty orchestra feels much larger that its seven members, under the expert direction of Chris Fenwick. Director Sam Gold deserves special attention for his ability to pull such nuanced performances from his ensemble. His staging is beautiful and thoughtful.
Overall, Fun Home is an unbelievable moving theatrical experience. It was one of the few times I’ve left a theatre lately feeling that I had been taken on a journey. I was never bored or distracted, even with the running time of and hour and forty minutes without an intermission. (p.s. You might want to hold off on the cocktails until after the show.) Lesbian journeys are so rarely portrayed on the main stage. We are often relegated to the sidelines, indie festivals, and one-woman shows. Fun Home takes Alison’s and our experience and gives it not only the validity that it deserves, but also a soundtrack to fill our hearts to the brim.
Fun Home is playing now through November 17 at The Public Theater in New York City. For tickets, click here.