review: fun home

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Fun Home

Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (based on the memoir by Alison Bechdel)
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Sam Gold
Featuring Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha, Beth Malone
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette
October 22, 2013 (opening) — December 1, 2013
production web site

(L-R) Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha. Image by Joan Marcus.
(L-R) Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha. Image by Joan Marcus.

Fun Home is a musical adaptation of a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, and the chance to see some of the best ensemble work by some Broadway and Off-Broadway veterans in years. The piece, currently playing in an extended run on the Newman stage at the Public Theater, is of such resonant coherence and emotional power that it has taken me a little time to process it (and, truth be told, to read through the original source material for the first time). As the original is a graphic exploration of layers of family history and an incisive look at one woman’s coming out story in the 1970s and making peace with parts of her past, the musical on stage is layered and composed and thoughtful and heartbreaking and hopeful. A full and exquisite musical theatre package.

Earlier this week I attended an event at the Martin E. Segal Theater @ the CUNY Graduate Center sponsored by the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies the further assisted me in getting my thoughts together. As part of a conversation that also included Moe Angelos (of whom I became a fan with her stage show exploration of Susan Sontag Sontag: Reborn), the Fun Home musical book and lyric writer Lisa Kron mused about her process and the performances and set in ways that illuminated my experience with the piece. It is a privilege to use the book adaptor-lyricist’s own words and reflections on this piece while making sense of my own emotional (positive and theatrically emotional) reactions to this work on stage.

At the CLAGS event on October 29th, Kron reported that she looked at the source material of Bechdel’s non linear graphic memoir “as a piece of fiction” and sought out “the emotional truth of the memories.” The Bechdel memoir’s structure uses her adult self — Alison in her 40s — as the narrator in comment inserts throughout the story of her parents meeting, childhood events, college age coming out, father’s death. The source material provides glimpses of moments, many characters and 80 years of family history and yet from a theatrical point of view, there are two events in the book: Alison comes out and Alison’s dad dies during her first year in college in a car accident. We are told this within minutes of the musical’s opening — I promise this is not a spoiler. Much like the reversed and circuitous storytelling style in Harold Pinter‘s Betrayal, currently in a problematic Broadway revival, the journey of Fun Home is toward understanding a later life event exposed at the top of a piece of theatre through portraying related events in the past for the balance of the show.

Kron’s book uses Alison’s search to connect with the memory of her father as the emotional framing event (initiating, concluding), aided by the choice to have three separate actresses playing Alison at three ages — Small Alison who is in elementary school (Sydney Lucas), college-aged Medium Alison (Alexandra Socha), and adult artist Alison (Beth Malone). Father Bruce (Michael Cerveris) fades in and out and lurks in his angry, anal-retentive closeted way, and mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) yearns for the artistic life she gave up to marry and settle with her husband tied to the family funeral home business in a little hill-locked Pennsylvania town. Two brothers are featured for childhood ensemble singing (the terrific Noah Hinsdale and Griffin Birney). And perhaps most resonantly for Alison and perhaps for many of us in the audience, Alison’s first college girlfriend Joan (Roberta Colindrez) is strong, lovely, and the object of one of the best new yearning love songs of the year (“I’m Changing My Major to Joan”).  A child’s game of airplane (child Alison suspended in air on the soles of her father’s feet) becomes a search for intellectual camaraderie and more. Kron chose, conflated, summarized and sometimes fictionalized, and knew that she’d managed to craft something true when Bechdel said of the finished musical: “Even the things you made up felt true.”

The three Alisons are, of a piece, perhaps some of the most solid work on stage I’ve seen this year. And by splitting the three phases of Alison’s life to three actresses, Bechdel’s story itself passes the Bechdel Test — or my own version of same in which I tally and compare the number of male and female characters telling any theatrical story. (Fun Home‘s tally of actors is five female and four male.) The three Alisons have different jobs to do, from different perspectives. The elementary school baby dyke played with wisdom and charm by Sydney Lucas plays as an equal with her brothers, sings along with cultural fixtures of the 60s and 70s from the Jackson Five to the Brady Bunch, opens the show like a trouper, and is entranced, in a tune suggested by a several frames in the memoir, by a bull dyke delivery woman. College aged Alison finds her way to the campus gay student union and out of the sexual-orientation closet, proclaiming in delectable morning-after song her desire to change her major to her first lover Joan. Adult Alison narrates, illuminates, simply observes for much of the show then finally participates in powerful three-part harmony with her other “selves.”

The direction by Sam Gold and the set by David Zinn provide gentle choreography and perhaps the most subtle and creative use of a turntable in a season already full of turntables and set pieces flown in. Again a magnificent translation of panes of graphic story telling to a live theatre stage, this set quietly and elegantly shifts the spare scenery in and out of moments and perspectives, on which the characters observe and interact with each other. Kron credits the ideas for and execution of the choreography of the set to Gold and Zinn, and said at the CLAGS event: ““The set is dramaturgical. It works like memory.”

A final note on the exquisitely calibrated music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Kron, distributed according to relative storytelling balance among the story characters. Most songs go to the Alisons (alone and in various groupings with other characters and finally in a trio all together), and shared in relative balance to their roles in the story. The orchestration by John Clancy relies on strings and reeds to convey this passionate coming of age story with delectable and heart-breaking yearning.

Martha Wade Steketee (November 2, 2013)

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