Beau Salant ‘18/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
A massive, cast-encompassing opening number, an “I Want” song sung by the main character, a big song of revelation towards the end of act one, a song of encouragement near the top of act two, an extravagant 11 o’clock number, and a grand finale. These are the well-known and established musical theater tropes that Fun Home, the chronicling of a girl’s tumultuous relationship with her father as they both embrace their sexualities now playing at the lovely Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City, so wonderfully avoids.
The daughter-father relationship is one not explored nearly enough in musical theater. It’s wonderfully satisfying that Fun Home so thoroughly explores the relationship that, by the end of the evening, it’s unclear who the protagonist is.
Fun Home is based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by the immensely talented Alison Bechdel, and thus, the musical has an inherently picturesque, images-frozen-in-time feel to it. Three magnificent actresses, all of different ages, portray Bechdel at different points in her life, and they each bring a different aspect of immense worth and depth to the character.
Beth Malone opens the show as the present-day Alison, at her drawing table, as she begins to work on the graphic novel that serves as the show’s basis. She remains present on the stage throughout the entire show, as it is her narration and memories that provide the story. Malone’s portrayal brings to the character the aspect of remembrance. As she remembers the events of her life, she reacts to her memories instinctively; embarrassed of her awkward first romantic interaction with a girl, somber towards the moment she realized she was attracted to women; ashamed of the coldness of what turned out to be the last interaction she has with her father. Malone expertly captures emotion in deep thought, and gives a deeply complex performance to suit it.
The next Alison we meet is eleven-year old Sydney Lucas, who portrays Bechdel during her childhood. Despite her age, Lucas’ Alison is perhaps the most complex of the three, since the character’s youth leaves a lot of her personality, lifestyle and inner turmoil still to be discovered later in life. Lucas brings an aspect of warmth to Alison, and represents the heart that only a young child, yet to be hurt by the burdens of life, can have. Lucas’ truly astonishing performance of the show’s signature number, the terrific “Ring of Keys,” indicates intelligent talent well beyond her years. Lucas, as well as the incredibly talented child actors Oscar Williams and Zell Steele Morrow, who portray Bechdel’s younger brothers, are also responsible for the show’s most fun and energetic moments, namely “Come to the Fun Home,” a rock and roll advertisement for their families funeral home that has to be seen to be believed.
The final of the three Alison’s is the college-aged “medium” Alison, portrayed by Emerson College alum Emily Skeggs. Skeggs is tasked with the aspect of confliction and coming-of-age. Portraying Alison in her questioning and eventual coming-out phase, she is effectively tender and beautifully nuanced, giving a performance with the utmost respect for the significance of the phase of Bechdel’s life that she is portraying. Her chemistry with the wonderful Roberta Colindrez, who plays Bechdel’s first girlfriend Joan, is another high point of the show.
Rounding out the cast are Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn (previously profiled in our Broadway Backstory column) as Bruce and Helen Bechdel, Alison’s father and mother, respectively. Both characters are essentially lost in worlds that don’t want them. Kuhn’s Helen – the show’s emotional anchor – is lost in a loveless marriage to a man whom she knows is homosexual (her song “Days and Days,” which Kuhn delivers with stoic beauty hiding a fierce emotional rage, is sure to earn the actress the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress). Cerveris’ Bruce, on the other hand, is lost in a world world where he must hide his sexuality due to his putting greater importance on his social status than his happiness. Both of these Broadway vets infuse their performances with sharp nuance and strong conviction.
That Cerveris, one of Broadway’s greatest leading men of the modern era, does so is unsurprising. His Bruce is a man of many facades. His Bruce is smart, secretive and burdened but ultimately loving, with an overall knowledge of the fact that life is just as livable as it is painfully unlivable.
A particularly painful yet brilliant scene takes place towards the end of the show, between Malone and Cerveris. Malone, as the show’s narrator telling the story through memory, knows that this will be the last time her Alison sees Cerveris’ Bruce. Cerveris’ Bruce does not know, and thus the dramatic tension enters into an emotional danger zone. Director Sam Gold does not go for unbearable sadness here, one of the many ingenious directorial decisions he makes with this material. Rather he goes for a morbid, tear-free peacefulness that produces more of a gut punch than any sobbing scene ever could.
The fact that Fun Home is as expertly written as it is staged and performed should be of no shock to anybody familiar with any of composer Jeanine Tesori’s (Violet, Caroline or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie) or writer-lyricist Lisa Kron’s (2.5 Minute Ride, Well) previous work. Both women are genuine masters of their craft, and Fun Home represents the potential outcome of two forces of creative genius working together with a mutual love and respect for their material, in addition to each other.
Fun Home winds up being about many things. In one way, it’s about a woman in search of an explanation of her past. In another way, it’s about a woman in search of an explanation of herself. Fun Home avoids the common musical theater tropes because instead of saying “I Want,” it says “I Am.” There is no reason to say “I Want” because everything it needs is already there; it already knows exactly what it is. The convergence of material so confident in itself with artists so willing and determined to bring it to life creates an object of strength and beauty, and that object looks a lot like Fun Home.
Fun Home is currently playing at the Circle in The Square Theatre in NYC. For tickets and more info visit: http://funhomebroadway.com/