A fathers’s suicide and a daughter’s sexual awakening may not be typical themes for a Broadway musical (OK, there’s no such thing as a typical theme for a Broadway musical). But Fun Home, the thoroughly engrossing, poignant show that has moved uptown after a brilliant run at the Public Theater, is neither depressing nor prurient. Quite the opposite: The staging by director Sam Gold (The Mystery Of Love & Sex, The Flick) remains so sensitively compelling that an awkward cast change and an even more awkward space have barely diminished the power of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori‘s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic roman a cléf.
Bechdel’s 2006 comic book-style novel tells the story of a girl named Alison growing up in a Pennsylvania town 200 miles west of Manhattan. The Bechdel home is an improbable combination of historic preservation site and the active family-run funeral home referred to in the title. Bruce (the fiercely intense Michael Cerveris) is the local high school English teacher, as well as funeral director and obsessive house restorer. He’s also deep in the closet — or so he thinks. Wife and mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) seems to find solace in homemaking and the admiration Bruce’s various endeavors produce. Or perhaps she’s merely suffering in silence — until she can no longer.
The genius of this adaptation is in the presence of three Alisons throughout: Small Alison (the enchanting Sydney Lucas), the adoring, demanding child who wants to soar; Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs, replacing Alexandra Socha from the original production), who begins to understand the reality of her rather odd upbringing when she goes away to college and starts exploring her own sexuality; and the grown Alison (Beth Malone), the artist who takes us back through the years as the story unfolds while she draws the panels and captions for her book.
So: A memory musical, as haunted and haunting as The Glass Menagerie, thanks to Kron’s quicksilver script and lyrics and the music by Tesori (Violet, Shrek, Caroline, Or Change), whose work merges the experimentalism and euphony that suffuse the best of Sondheim; the only other contemporary composer in this vein was the late Jonathan Larson (Rent). The score is closer in tone to Tesori’s collaboration with Tony Kushner on Caroline, Or Change, than to Violet except for the breadth of its styles from roots-style country to classic Broadway belting that figures in all of her scores, including the underrated Shrek.
Circle In The Square theater, which places the audience all around the action, was a poor choice for the transfer. It provides intimacy but Gold has not solved the unsolvable challenge of an audience spending half the time facing the backs of actors’ heads. In a musical especially, we need to be acutely attuned to both action and reaction, something we’re robbed of here. It does give designer David Zinn a nice opportunity to emphasize the evanescent nature of memory in the setting. And Ben Stanton’s exquisite lighting scheme goes a long way to keeping moods well-delineated.
Skeggs is lovely in the central role of Middle Alison, but unlike Lucas, she doesn’t seem by any stretch to have come from the same genetic pool as Small Alison and she seems taller than Alison herself, which is just odd. (She’s also overshadowed, perhaps unfairly, by the memory of Socha’s indelible portrait at the Public.) Roberta Colindrez is again terrific as Joan, Alison’s first love.
As for the parents, Kuhn, one of our best musical-theater actresses, has deepened in a role that felt underwritten the first time around, and her torchy Act II ballad “Days and Days” deservedly brings down the house. Cerveris, also through changes I can’t quite pinpoint, has altered his — or our — view of Bruce, making him somewhat less sympathetic and thus more challenging.
But challenging isn’t a word I really want to emphasize here. Fun Home is a marvelous achievement, full of humor as well as rue. Its 100 transporting minutes fly by and then it’s gone — not to be forgotten.