(from L-R: Beth Malone, Michael Cerveris, and Sydney Lucas)
Based on the critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, Fun Home at the Public Theater is being called the first “mainstream lesbian musical.” It’s also heartfelt, daring, funny, one of the best musicals I’ve seen in recent memory, and one you won’t see on Broadway anytime soon. Be warned, I will be gushing a lot about this show for the next few paragraphs.
The piece is autobiographical in nature, with Alison (Beth Malone) working on a graphic novel about her father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris, in one of his best stage performances to date). Alison’s family consists of her two brothers, Christian and John (the adorable Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale, respectively), and her mother, Helen (A beautifully reserved and emotionally distraught Judy Kuhn). When in college, Alison learns that her father is gay. Four months later, he commits suicide. The bulk of the musical is Alison looking back on her childhood and her college years, and finding the traces of where she discovered both her own sexuality, and that of her father, and how the man she always felt distant from wasn’t so different after all.
With music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) and books and lyrics by playwright Lisa Kron (Well), the show is filled with a perfect balance of heart and humor, not to mention songs that will fill your heart with joy, then immediately break it in two. With slick and tightly focused direction by Sam Gold, the show moves along at a brisk pace, gliding from moment to moment like the graphic novel of its’ genesis. The show jumps around in time, highlighting different moments of Alison’s life as they connect thematically, rather than how they fit in linearly.
The performances are outstanding, simply put. Alison is split up into three actors. Malone takes on adult Alison, guiding us through the story and gracefully trying to put the pieces together. Medium Alison (played magnificently at my performance by Emily Skeggs) shows the character in her college years, and practically steals the show with her song “Sex With Joan” about her first lesbian sexual experience. It’s a song unlike any other I’ve heard at a musical in recent memory; full of joy and surprise and deep moments of revelation. A perfectly crafted song. And Small Alison, played by one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen on the stage, Sydney Lucas, is in full awareness and full control of her role of a young girl who doesn’t know who she is quite yet, but knows that she doesn’t want to be the sort of girl her father wants her to be.
This moment is encapsulated in the song “Ring of Keys,” where Small Alison spies a butch woman in a diner, and finally is able to identify with someone, someone who is the physical embodiment of everything Alison is feeling inside. It’s a gorgeous song brilliantly performed by Lucas, but is it one that a Broadway audience could ever watch? That of a young girl discovering her queer identity at such a young age? The sad truth is, this is not the sort of musical that could ever survive in a commercial market. Musicals rarely deal with sexual discovery and queer identification in the smart, adult ways that this show does. The piece never shouts in your face or tries to preach a message of any kind. And smart, subtle shows rarely thrive on Broadway. The show has been amazingly successful at the Public, and I wouldn’t be that surprised if it made the Broadway move, but don’t count on it.
The point is, this is where the future of musical theatre is. Daring new shows that ask us questions about ourselves and the people around us. Fun Home is an outstanding piece of theatre that will hopefully be remembered for years to come. Excuse me while I cry some more.