Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's award-winning musical comes to Broadway.
There's always a hint of worry when a very special off-Broadway show transfers to the big leagues of Broadway. Will it lose the magic? Does it have what it takes to survive in a celebrity-dominated industry? In the case of Fun Home, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's awe-inspiring musical that comes to the Circle in the Square Theatre after an acclaimed run at the Public Theater, the answers to those two questions are, respectively, "heck no" and "yes!"
In fact, the thrilling nature of this groundbreaking look at adolescence and acceptance has increased with its uptown move, in a mounting by Sam Gold now completely staged in the round (as opposed to the traditional proscenium structure it had downtown). As for celebrities, who needs movie stars when you have a breathtaking cast that includes Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and Sydney Lucas? Their work has only gotten deeper since the impeccable off-Broadway run. These strong actors do justice to a delicate piece that has a lot more to say than most musicals premiering nowadays.
Fun Home is inspired by cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic novel-memoir, a piquantly funny, compulsively readable work. The musical tells Alison's story of growing up in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, as the daughter of Bruce (Cerveris), a funeral director prone to fits of rage, and Helen (Kuhn), a community-theater actress who seems to care more about her roles than about her children. Despite the laughs — and there are plenty, both in the book and the musical — the story is a dark one. A few weeks after learning that Alison is gay, Bruce, also gay and nearly ruined by dalliances with young men, steps in front of a truck.
The role of Alison is played by three different women at various ages. The eldest — Alison (Malone) — narrates the tale while simultaneously observing her life, and turns it into a comic while coming to terms with her fractured family. Skeggs is Medium Alison, the awkward college student whose realization of her sexuality starts her journey to womanhood. Sydney Lucas completes the trio as Small Alison, the little girl who'd rather wear a T-shirt than a dress and who discovers strange feelings for a butch delivery woman.
Bechdel has said in interviews that Fun Home seems like an odd choice for a musical, not just because of the subject matter but also because of the time-bending nature of the source material. Of course musicals are perfect for playing with standard theatrical structures and timelines. Kron, Tesori, and Gold made this work at the Public by using a turntable on David Zinn's ornate, museum-like set to shift eras. Back on Lafayette Street, it was an impressive achievement. Here, Fun Home is absolutely mind-blowing.
With Victorian furniture that rises on lifts and falls into the floor through trapdoors, combined with subtle, constantly shifting lighting (by Ben Stanton), watching Fun Home now really does feel like seeing a comic strip come to life. Adult Alison, who feels more present now than in the off-Broadway run, offers narrative commentary on her life in the form of captions. She's in the room as Medium Alison goes on an awkward date with Joan (Roberta Colindrez, perfection), who would become her first love, and as Small Alison and her brothers (Zell Steele Morrow and Oscar Williams) devise a sweetly silly, fake TV commercial for their family funeral home.
But Fun Home achieves more than just the successful combination of two vastly different genres. Kron, who penned the book and lyrics, and Tesori the composer, have created what is perhaps the timeliest coming-of-age story being told today. That the protagonist of Fun Home is human and not the caricature of a lesbian is worth praising. So too is the fact that this story is told from the perspective of a gay woman, when many LGBT-themed works are dominated by stories of gay men.
The writing here also captures the impossible: the inherently relatable fears, anxieties, and joys of self-discovery, whether gay or straight. The score is witty and dark, with a powerhouse lineup of songs that for these performers become gifts. The young Lucas may be a year older, but she's still a preternaturally talented performer whose intelligence is jaw-dropping (her facial expressions during "Ring of Keys," a song about seeing a kindred spirit in a UPS woman, brings tears to the eyes). Skeggs is adorably gawky as Alison the college student. It's impossible not to relate to her as she sings the deliciously funny paean to her new girlfriend, "Changing My Major." The celebrated Broadway veteran Kuhn, whose stage time is brief, nearly steals the show with her 11 o'clock number, "Days and Days," a startlingly gorgeous anthem about living in a way that makes you happy.
Cerveris, meanwhile, delivers his most richly nuanced work in years. His final scene, a car ride with Malone's drily hilarious and conflicted adult Alison, is a shattering, edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding tour de force.
These two performers create an unforgettable moment in an unforgettable show, one that will leave theatergoers shaken to the core — and perhaps wanting to call up their parents to say, "I love you." In an era of jukebox musicals, there's only one thing left to say: Thank God Fun Home is on Broadway.