We’re back from our trip to New York to scout out productions you might want to see (or not), shows that might tour South Florida and scripts that might be worth reviving in our regional theaters. We will run our reviews intermittently over the next two weeks. All but one these shows have been nominated for Tony Awards to be given out June 7. At the bottom of the reviews, we will also link to the reviews we published in January of shows that have been nominated as well.
By Bill Hirschman
After love, perhaps compassion is the highest virtue of humanity. That tender melding of sympathy and forgiveness for human failings and their resulting tragedy suffuse the transcendent musical Fun Home, a front runner for the Best Musical Tony and numerous others.
True, this may be the first mainstream musical whose heroine is a lesbian and that the narrative looks back on her childhood and college years when her closeted father may have committed suicide just as she discovered her sexuality.
Certainly, the show examines the dysfunctional ways people dealt with sexuality through the 1960s and 1970s, and how accepting orientation is spiritually healthier than denial or secrecy.
But the musical is far more universal. Anyone can vicariously plug into the central character’s attempt to make sense of her past and how it may or may not have formed her. It speaks to the struggle of generations to understand those who came before them. By that understanding, we find forgiveness for their shortcomings that we did not comprehend as children and young adults, but which we appreciate as we age, the gift of being a maturing evolving human being.
The father’s death is saved for the last scenes, hanging over the evening like the inevitability of mortality itself. Yet Fun Home is indefatigably buoyed by a wry self-effacing wit and a warm comfort that the passage of time often surrenders that understanding but not closure.
Fun Home oddly has no real resolution or simple answers at the final fade out, only an acceptance and forgiveness of the father’s inability to deal with his sexuality and his inability to help his daughter accept hers.
The show is based on the 2006 graphic novel, more of a memoir by Alison Bechdel. The comic book genre as a source is also a first unless you count It’s A Bird It’s A Plane It’s Superman and Spiderman: Will Someone Turn Off The Light. After an extensive development period of about five years, it bowed at The Public Theater in 2013 and was extended repeatedly.
The outstanding script by Lisa Kron (Well, 2.5-Minute Ride) opens in the present with the narrator, 43-year-old Alison, an alternative culture cartoonist. She has reached the same age as her father was when he walked in front of a truck, although his intent has always been a bit of a mystery. Her father Bruce was an English teacher and a funeral home director with an obsession for restoring fine home furnishings. Alison’s ruminations are sparked when she discovers some of Bruce’s life-defining possessions.
Alison narrates as the play delves into her small town childhood with a seemingly picture perfect family (with a different actress playing the young Alison), and then her freshman year in college when she realized her sexuality (played by a third actress). Kron weaves all three eras together seamlessly so that each comments on the others – especially the sad knowledge or blithe ignorance of what comes next.
But in addition to actors we’ll praise later, the triumph belongs to Kron’s script and lyrics, and especially the career best achievement of composer Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Shrek, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change).
Kron’s brilliant lyrics are often skillfully indirect, even deceptively bland as no one frankly faces their inner feelings. But their confused angst and buried subtext is as clearly indicated as if there were supertitles. At the same time, Kron’s natural bent toward humor is evidenced over and over such as when the suddenly liberated freshman Alison sings that she’s “changing her major to Joan,” after sleeping with her first lover. Or when the three Bechdel children make up a Jackson Five-like television jingle to advertise the family business, nicknamed in-house “Fun Home.” Or best of all, a fantasy of family harmony with the ensemble singing a kind of Partridge Family number.
Tesori’s glorious music has echoes of modern composers like latter-day Sondheim and Adam Guettel, but in the end it’s like no one else’s, rapturously melodic with idiosyncratic rhythms and structure. Banked passion exudes from most numbers until emotions overflow in the final scenes. It is in part why Kron and Tesori justifiably were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2014.
Director Sam Gold, who did only a decent job last season with The Real Thing but headed the acclaimed The Flick, has formed this effort with profound insight and seemingly effortless staging. The Public production was done under a proscenium, but this edition is at Circle In The Square, so Gold has staged it in the round with furniture sliding in or being brought up on elevators from below.
Gold and Kron have Alison on stage most of the time watching these scenes play back in her mind, but she often follows around characters like an invisible shadow, such as reading aloud the breathless diary entry of her young self at college and wincing at her social clumsiness
On paper, it might seem daunting to follow three time frames flowing around each other like strands of a tapestry. That the audience is never lost as these threads intertwine is testament to Kron’s writing, Gold’s precise staging and Ben Stanton’s nimble lighting. That last element includes isolating characters in boxes of light resembling comic book panel frames which flicker and finally interlock.
The acting ensemble has been together since the beginning of the project, other than two of the three Bechdel siblings, so a familial chemistry percolates.
Beth Malone portrays the modern day Alison as an intelligent and emotionally troubled everywoman seeking a détente with her past. Although this Alison is wiry and mannish, not a shred of stereotype is visible in her creation of a contemporary lesbian. Instead, she and the writers have given birth to a human being who isn’t a symbol or role model. She just is who she is.
What Michael Cerveris does is nearly impossible to analyze. How he creates in Bruce a sensitive, shut-down, haunted, controlled, mercurial, loving, distant person is simply a mystery. When Bruce cuts loose in his meltdown finale, the psychological twisting in on himself exudes emotional torture and confusion.
A lot of attention has also been given to Sydney Lucas’ endearing young Alison who is bright but not abnormally precocious. She nails the song in which she describes how she discovered a new kind of beauty in the mannish woman delivering a package.
But one of the best performances comes from Emily Skeggs as the collegiate Alison who is delightfully uncertain and jazzed during her discovery of her sexuality. Her blazing eyes and shy smile infuse heart in the show.
Broadway veteran Judy Kuhn plays the long-suffering mother struggling to deal with her husband’s increasing straying while trying to keep the family together. Her late number revealing how she has wasted her life with this man is heart-rending.
Numerous shows have bowed on Broadway that made audiences wonder how anyone in regional theater could tackle such a work, and each time the doubters have been proven wrong, from August: Osage County to next to normal.
But while someone in our region will doubtless undertake the Fun Home challenge, we cherished the unique qualities and quality of this carefully-crafted, deeply emotional and highly polished production. It made us reluctant to see anyone else’s take on it.
When you see as much theater as a critic does, you are blessed to see a lot of shows that make you chuckle, tear up, contemplate and even have your view of life altered a bit. But you live for experiences like Fun Home.
Our reviews of other Tony-nominated shows:
It’s Only A Play: http://www.floridatheateronstage.com/reviews/report-from-new-york-its-only-a-play-high-and-inside-baseball/
On The 20th Century: http://www.floridatheateronstage.com/general/report-from-new-york-be-glad-to-have-kristin-chenoweth-aboard-on-the-20th-century/
Something Rotten: http://www.floridatheateronstage.com/reviews/report-from-new-york-something-rotten-is-far-from-it/
The Last Ship: http://www.floridatheateronstage.com/reviews/report-from-new-york-seaworthy-the-last-ship-shouldnt-be-allowed-to-sink/
You Can’t Take It With You: http://www.floridatheateronstage.com/reviews/report-from-new-york-you-cant-take-it-with-you-still-celebrates-the-free-spirit/
Hand to God: http://www.floridatheateronstage.com/reviews/performances/report-from-new-york-inky-comedy-hand-to-god-is-riveting-riotous-and-deeply-unnerving/