About halfway through Fun Home, which opened Wednesday night at the National Theatre, ten year-old Alison is in a coffee shoppe with her Dad. It’s the second time during the show that father is chastising daughter for not wearing a barrette. Regarding her appearance, Alison resists gender conforming choices, and this frustrates Dad.
The door chimes jingle, a butch woman (unseen by us) comes in, and Alison has a solo, “Ring of Keys,” during which she works out in her mind and expresses to us her realization that she has recognized a kindred spirit.
The song is a magnificent, moving evocation of something familiar to most gay and lesbian men and women: those moments on the continuum of the process of preference recognition, those incidents that occur before one self-identifies as being attracted to the same sex, those indicators that seem obvious in retrospect as we remain perhaps intentionally oblivious to their implications at the time they occur.
It was the song that was chosen for the Tony broadcast the year Fun Home (which had transferred to Broadway after a successful run at The Public Theater) swept many awards in the musical categories. It’s depressingly common for those Tony numbers to make you wonder who would want to see the show they represent, but that number blew me away and made me anxious to see the full production.
And in production, the song doesn’t disappoint. Taking an (almost) offensive stereotype about lesbian appearance and using it as a metaphor for the unlocking of self-awareness, it is delivered by a young actor (on that broadcast and at the National) with touching ingeniousness and indelible power.
The song, out of context, can stand by itself, and it reminded me of how the best Morrissey lyrics can piercingly articulate feelings and thoughts which one might have previously assumed were unique to oneself. The musical that surrounds the number may not consistently match it, but it comes damn close.
Ten year-old Alison is recalled by forty-something Alison Bechdel, the narrator of Fun Home and, in real life, the author of the graphic novel that inspired the musical. A third actor plays Alison as she heads to college, still fighting those unexplored romantic/sexual impulses. (“Don’t let me be a lesbian,” she pleads aloud to herself.)
But the musical focuses as well on the other person at the coffee shoppe. Alison’s Dad (no spoiler alert needed, this is revealed by our narrator within the first ten minutes or so) was gay and he killed himself.
What gives the piece so much of its emotional resonance is that these two people are very much products of the times in which they lived. Bruce Bechdel, coming of age in 2017, would certainly have had options available to him that he didn’t have as a young man in the 1950s. Alison Bechdel likewise would possibly not have fought or questioned her sexuality now as much as she did in the late 70s, early 80s. (I was also gay and in college in Ohio back then — I know of what I speak.)
Bruce, Alison demonstrates for us, lived his life within a very contained geographic circle. At another point, she has worried that she could be just like him — stuck. And perhaps, had she been born twenty years earlier, she may have been similarly confined — at least, the play makes you wonder about that.
In addition to the period aspect that throws into relief the limited options available to the characters with same-sex predispositions, the show also will resonate with anyone who, in their own life and in either role, grapples with complex or unresolved feelings between parent and child, dealing as it does with the obstacles for either to completely know the other — and with the feelings that one could have, should have been more available on some important level.
The first lines (I think they are first) are from the ten year-old: “Come here, Daddy. Listen to me. I want you to play airplane.” (Paraphrased.) That stabbed my heart when Fun Home was the first thing I saw in New York during my first trip away from my toddlers. It wasn’t much easier to hear Wednesday night after flying balsa-wood planes in the park before leaving home for the night. Every parent has to, of course, balance their own life against their role as parent, and must inevitably and too often disappoint a child’s request, and feel the consequent sense of having betrayed innocence.
It’s a tribute to this work and its creators that it has so much resonance despite the fact that there are a lot of things about Bruce that are not attractive — one might even say are borderline despicable.
Those creators, by the way, are composer Jeanine Tesori, whose Caroline, or Change was recently at Round House Theatre, and book-writer/lyricist Lisa Kron, whose Well is on-stage through Sunday in a five-star production at 1st Stage.
Bruce stays married to Alison’s mother Helen and keeps the family of five together even as he conducts a gay life on the down-low. Well, mostly on the down-low: he gets in trouble with the law after plying an under-age student with beer.
At one point, during a fight with Helen, he says something along the lines of, “Everyone in this town knows what kind of man I am; why is it only you who has a problem with me?” The line is wonderfully ambiguous as you wonder what exactly he is referring to that the everyone knows about.
And, while often an inevitable response to unbearable depression and pain, suicide is a terrible legacy for the children left behind to have to contend with emotionally, and so his final act also leaves you cold.
But he is, at the same time, a person who deeply loves and seeks out and (as the refurbisher of antiques and houses) is the restorer of things beautiful. In an early scene, going through a yard-sale haul, it is apparent that his eye is acute and his taste impeccable.
Early on, Bruce extols the talents of his wife Helen, who studied with Uta Hagen and is better, he tells us, than many successful actors in New York. It gives us a glimpse into what has brought and kept them together.
When Alison brings a first girlfriend home, she helps Bruce out, polishing silver: “He charmed me into it.”
It is Alison who tells her first girlfriend at college that Bruce’s reputation as an English teacher is outstanding. Although that career isn’t explored much beyond that comment and his questionable involvement with students, it seems to be presented as a dependable assessment, not as parental worship.
In addition to teacher, house restorer, antique collector, general aesthete, and gay cruiser, he also runs an inherited family business, a funeral home, which the current family cheekily refers to as the “Fun Home,” hence the show’s title.
There’s the obvious and ironic double-entendre of the title — it’s a play about a strained family — but this occupation adds further depth to the piece. The assumed sincerity and hushed tones he displays for a man buying a casket echo in scenes when we witness the necessarily duplicitous behavior of a person leading a double life. And the mechanics of the profession introduce his children to the realities of mortality at a tender age.
Sam Gold won a Tony for directing this show and his tour maintains an impressively high level of achievement. David Zinn’s set (he also designed the costumes) functions quite differently on a proscenium stage than it did on the extreme thrust of Circle in the Square, where it played in NYC. Indeed, the different perspective struck me upon entering. (We’re looking up from orchestra seats here, whereas, at Circle in the Square, we were raked as if gazing down on an operating theatre.)
closes May 13, 2017
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With the use of a wall that obscures what’s behind it, Zinn is able to isolate certain scenes in a manner he couldn’t do on Broadway. He also is able to allow lighting designer Ben Stanton to cast the shadow of Bruce on a wall to great effect toward play’s end — I don’t remember that effect in New York.
I’ll admit to not being a big fan of contemporary, post-Sondheim, Rent-influenced musicals. Hearing scores or seeing Tony numbers leaves me almost never wanting to go to the show. I saw and loved La La Land, so maybe I’ve turned a corner, but even Keegan’s terrific production didn’t make me like Next to Normal.
Fun Home never made me cringe the way many other new musicals do (though the oft-repeated, Sondheim-infused six notes that begin the score had me worried at the start). I think that is in particular due to Kron’s lyrics, which are witty without being cloying and — more importantly — are dramatic: we see characters talking to each other, or to us; we don’t feel as if an author is informing us about characters in the author’s words, which ring false in the mouths of the characters, as is my feeling listening to a lot of current show music.
The acting is uniformly strong, and it’s impressively subtle. The other thing that makes me crazy about musicals these days is a performance style that embraces the big and the broad and that avoids nuance. This cast works with such delicacy that I worried for the folks in the back and in the balconies. Were they seeing the wonderful detail in the performances that I was witnessing from row E? The boisterous response at curtain call from the whole room leads me to think that they did. And the voices are really gorgeous.
Alessandra Baldacchino is young Alison and, if she didn’t erase memories of the wonderful Sydney Lucas, who I was privileged to see do it on-stage as well as on that Tony broadcast, she gives it her all and its due. (Carly Gold will play the part at some performances.)
Abby Corrigan is college-age Alison and she is pitch-perfect as the awkward young woman experiencing the world and herself in new, surprising, and intoxicating ways. It’s a tribute to her and to Kate Shindle as narrator Alison that the transition is seamless when narrator becomes participant in a climactic scene.
Robert Petkoff captures an impressive range of dimensions as Bruce. Without white-washing the character, he articulates wonderfully the attractiveness of his passions. Without demonizing the character, he articulates memorably the unattractiveness of his prevarications.
Susan Moniz is flawless at Helen. Without intruding in early scenes in which she isn’t the focal point, we have a clear sense of who she is and what she’s contending with. When she gets to her big solo, “Days and Days,” she nails what is, after “Ring of Keys,” the show’s other show-stopper.
Okay, the kids have “Come to the Fun Home,” and, it must be said, that stopped the show as well. In it, Baldacchino is joined by Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador. It’s a delight to see child actors being allowed to have fun in such a charming way, without being pushed in a manner that makes one uncomfortable.
Karen Eilbacher is Joan, that first college girlfriend of Alison’s. We never feel as if Joan is a dramatic contrivance or as if the relationship has been romanticized, an easy trap for a part of this nature in a memory play.
Robert Hager picks up a series of roles. My favorite was the diffident student getting a ride from Bruce, who tempts the underage boy with the offer of a beer. It’s delicate work, another example of director Gold’s meticulous and effective work with his actors.
And thank god the cast doesn’t have those awful face mics that otherwise seem the norm these days. The band (led by Micah Young, in sight behind an upstage scrim for the first half of the show) isn’t so electrified that normal amplification needs to be augmented. (I hate those face mics. It looks like everyone on-stage needs to blow their nose.)
Fun Home is done without intermission, runs a little less than two hours, and I loved every bit of it. Five stars.
Fun Home, Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel. Directed by Sam Gold. Featuring Robert Petkoff, Susan Moniz, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan, Alessandra Baldacchino, Carly Gold, Karen Eilbacher, Robert Hager, Lennon Nate Hammond, Pierson Salvador. Scenic & Costume Design: David Zinn. Lighting Design: Ben Stanton. Sound Design: Kai Harada. Orchestrations: John Clancy. Music Director: Micah Young. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Production Stage Manager: Shawn Pennington. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.