Fun Home continues at Circle in the Square Theatre, New York.
Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Moving an acclaimed but definitely off-beat and small-scale Off-Broadway musical from the rather cozy environs of a well-funded not-for-profit organisation to the harshly competitive battleground of Broadway can be a precarious affair. It’s like repotting a beautifully fragile plant. Luckily, Fun Home, which was greeted with ecstatic huzzahs when it opened at the Public Theater in October 2013, has made the journey with minimal damage to its enthrallingly delicate structure.
There has been some diminishment of emotional intensity in its transfer from a proscenium to the awkward arena-like Circle in the Square theatre. It’s almost like working in the round with its extremely elongated thrust-like stage, the audience on three quarters of the playing space. The design necessitates a lot of additional movement, to make sure every section of the audience gets its fair frontal share of the action. There are times when the blocking appears motivated simply for that purpose. (These are problems, of course, that could have been worked out in previews subsequent to the one I attended.)
For the most part, though, director Sam Gold’s staging takes on the challenge with grace and polish. And with most of the original cast still intact – no TV or celebrity names brought in to boost the box office (a big bow to the show‘s brave producers!) – the show continues to probe masterfully into the complexity of human connection in a family where pain runs deep under a seemingly untroubled surface.
Based on the graphic memoir-like novel by Alison Bechdel, the script by Lisa Kron depicts Alison at three stages of her life: the prepubescent ‘Small Alison’; ‘Middle Alison’, the college-age woman awakening to her lesbian sexuality; and ‘Alison’, the mature author creating a book to untangle her twisted feelings for her beloved but elusive and closeted gay father, whose life ended in suicide.
These revelations are not spoilers: ‘Alison’ tells the audience all this at almost the very start of the show, in which she serves as both narrator and onlooker while scenes from her past come to life. What grabs you is the mix of humour, tenderness, melancholy and the plangent sense of living realised in these scenes, heightened by Kron’s lyrics along with her dialogue and the rich and vibrant music of Jeanine Tesori.
Michael Cerveris, continuing in the role of the father, again delivers a detailed portrait of an engagingly multi-talented man – a dedicated restorer of antiques, an affable small town high school teacher and a funeral director as well, running the inherited family business. But he can also be a controlling father, with a dark temper arising from his own seething and secret desires. It’s a flawlessly engrossing performance. And it’s a performance that gains even greater dimension when contrasted against the quietly unhappy acceptance of his wife, played with a compelling stillness by Judy Kuhn.
The three Alisons as well are sharply drawn. As ‘Small Alison’, Sydney Lucas once more amazes with the total naturalness of her performance. At this point in her young career, a little bit more age has hardly withered the youthful variety of this pre-teen’s characterisation.
Emily Skeggs, who took over the role of ‘Middle Alison’ during the run at The Public, tellingly embodies the uncertainties and enthusiasms of the college-age woman discovering love and sex, and herself in the process. At the adult writer, Beth Malone provides, as before, a sympathetic and questioning guide through the story’s thickets of feeling.
Others from the original cast are Roberta Colindriz in a fine turn as Alison’s campus amour and Joel Perez ably portraying a variety of characters, including guys involved in the father’s misadventures. Completing the roster are two lively newcomers, Oscar Williams and Zell Steele Morrow, as Alison’s young brothers. When they join with Lucas in depicting a musical television commercial the kids would like to put on for dad’s funeral home (known in the family as the ‘fun home’), it makes for a deliriously happy highlight in this often heartbreaking – but sweetly so – portrait of a family in quiet trouble.
Now, the big question is whether Fun Home – even with its battery of Off-Broadway acclaim and awards – can withstand the onslaught of competition from the potential musical blockbusters loaded with familiar names such as Gigi, Zhivago, some American in Paris, and some lady named Anna and a King, that are also opening or have opened this month in the final dash for the Tony Awards. Let’s hope that the dozen or so courageous producers who have taken Fun Home to Broadway in all its small-scale glory will find it a fun investment.
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