Monday, November 25, 2013

REVIEWED: Fun Home

My second show of the day was Fun Home, and it was, quite possibly, the least uplifting way to end my day.
Regardless, it successfully lived up to all the hype that surrounded it!
Extended past its original run several times over, and with plans of further extensions and mayhap e'en a Broadway run, and now the cast recording is available for pre-order, the show has been receiving glowing reviews for its earnestness, joy, and heartbreak since the beginning.

It's not perfect, but nothing so based in humanity ever is. The stuff to love is pretty stellar, and the stuff to fix is pretty small.

Fun Home is a musical based on the awesome graphic novel by Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For), with a book and music by Lisa Kron (2.5 Minute Ride; Well) and Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie; Caroline, or Change; Shrek). It stars the talented female actors Beth Malone, Alexandra Socha (though I saw the understudy-turned-replacement, Emily Skeggs), and young Sydney Lucas as different-aged iterations of Alison recalling growing up in the titular Fun Home. It's also home to a powerhouse performance from Judy Kuhn (the singing voice of Disney's Pocahontas) but more on that later.
I just feel I need to begin at this point, because hanging in our box office is a returned Season Overview with a hastily scrawled message on it that reads: "Democratic!? I see only THREE women playwrights. Have more women playwrights and I'll buy a season subscription."
All feelings of sexism aside, I do acknowledge and abhor the fact that women are still severely under-represented in almost every aspect of the country, particularly the work place. The same goes for minorities and people of new and emerging sexual orientations.
But, for what it's worth, theater is a collaborative endeavor. The idea that in a particular theater's season we don't do an equal number of male to female playwrights is an archaic way of thinking about equality. I want to point out that three women worked on this show, we have a couple female directors involved in the season, and one of those female playwrights? Is Suzan-goddamn-Lori Parks. Not only is she a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but she's one of the best dramatists I've ever studied, and she is the Master Writer Chair of the Public Theater. What is that, you ask? I DON'T KNOW EITHER, but they made it FOR HER.
So, my awfully reductive point is this: I just don't think a low number of female playwrights is a good representation of inherent sexism. From seeing both Good Person (Kron is pulling double-duty appearing in Good Person while the show she wrote plays across the lobby) and Fun Home this week, I see a lot of good being done by women and it's caliber work, and that shouldn't be overlooked just because one ratio is out of whack.

Okay, rant over. Fun Home.

Like the graphic novel it is based on, Fun Home is a rough timeline of main character Alison trying to reconcile the memories of her seemingly withdrawn, somewhat angry, obsessive, and secretive complex character of her father. She sums up the show right at the beginning: "Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist." And from there, we see the struggle of a girl attempting to come to grips with her own identity as she also tries to find her place in her often-difficult relationship with her father.



Beth Malone, playing "Alison", our narrator, is ever-present, and observes as well as comments, but doesn't involve herself in the action, save for the important penultimate scene, between just her and her father. Malone is a capable actress, juggling a sort of journalistic neutrality but her wry humor and wit shining through appropriately.
Young Alison is in the hands of Sydney Lucas who is at the center of two "period" songs: "Come to the Fun Home", Alison and her brothers' attempts to make a commercial advertising the family funeral home business immediately recognizable as a Jackson 5/Motown homage, and "Raincoat of Love", a fantasy sequence reminiscent of The Brady Variety Hour, Partridge Family, or even Donny & Marie type musical numbers, complete with lame group choreography. There's a lot for a little girl to handle here, with a demanding father, a distant mother, a melancholy family business, and early curiosities into her own identity, but Lucas seems to know no fear. It almost feels like a continuity error that the wildly confident Young Alison grows up to be the awkward and tentative Medium Alison.
In the picture on the left, original actor Alexandra Socha plays the part of Medium Alison, but I did not get to see her. On the right, is her understudy (and now permanent replacement) Emily Skeggs, who had a quiet self-confidence, layered over by her social awkwardness. Her awakening and identification as gay makes for a wonderful journey, and provides much of the emotional pull of the show, and Skeggs proved she is more than what the connotations of understudy would suggest.

But to steal a line directly from the graphic novel (which is one of the best examples of a graphic novel being more novel than comic book),
"Your father has had affairs. With other men."
"What?"
I'd been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parent's tragedy.
It's a late-act revelation for the character of Middle Alison (even though it was told to us at the beginning) and completely changes her perception of him and later on his suicide.
The story jumps between Young Alison trying to bond with her dad, a constant perfectionist, striving for cultured living, seemingly most happy when he's alone (One scene where she is working on a school project to draw a map of all the places she's lived and her father's good-natured interference that soon turns to stage parent levels of meddling is a difficult one to get through, as are many of the dramatically ironic scenes with Bruce exiting in any number of moods) and Middle Alison in her first year of college, meeting her first girlfriend, and coming to terms with being a lesbian. She thinks she can't talk to her father about her struggles because he doesn't know what it's like to be gay, until she finds out he is. But her father is not so quick to talk. Maybe he's in denial, maybe he just refuses to acknowledge it, maybe he doesn't even know, but whatever the reason, the conversation between Bruce and Alison never comes to fruition, even in the all-important scene where narrator Alison finally steps into the action, the conversation never happens, because no fiction can compensate for what actually happened.


Bruce is played by the incomparable Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd, Assassins) and boy, was there ever a wonderfully complex and dark musical theater character. There's many labels you can place on him: bi-polar, self-hating, obsessive-compulsive, manic depressive...But none of it is ever explicitly stated. You only get to see the results of a man having illicit affairs on the side of a broken marriage and home life.
There's a marked sadness to the character, as well as a lot of anger, and Cerveris can go from demure through gritted teeth to out of control rage over nothing in a second. Shades of the Demon Barber could be seen it, but there's something unknowable to the character that adds some depth to him that Todd lacks. Cerveris makes sure you never know everything about Bruce, and it only adds to our seeming disconnect when he dies. His last number in particular, the 11 o'clock number "Edges of the World" is heartbreaking and extremely telling without ever actually being either.

And Helen, Bruce's put-upon wife, is played by the tragical Judy Kuhn. She has only one real number in the show which is too bad because Judy has one of my favorite voices ever, but "Days and Days" is the true heartbreaking moment of the musical, and the real emotional crux. From across a dining room table, seated the whole time, Helen relays to Middle Alison her motherly hopes as she reflects on her own wasted days, basically: "Don't come back here. I didn't raise you to waste your days like I did." She reaches her hand across the table to her daughter, but never makes it all the way over, and her daughter never reaches for her hand. It's a powerful, dissonant moment in a gut-wrenching, powerful musical.

Like I said, it's not all perfect, but it's all easily forgivable. Some of the non-house sets are sparse but I feel it's done purposely, and I wanted to see more of the "panel" effects throughout the rest of the show but it was only for one particular sequence.
It's a bit spoiled that we all know the ending of Bruce from the very beginning. It provides an immediate disconnect to the character, but Cerveris and Alison's frustrating relationship with her father draws us in to this compelling family drama and it doesn't let go. I'm glad just for its emotional burden that it's only 90 minutes (and no intermission) but I enjoyed the show immensely.

The design of the titular Fun Home is something to behold on its own, the cast is stellar, and the music and lyrics are admirable and strong. If it's not Here Lies Love, then it's going to be Fun Home that gets a Broadway run and it could go on indefinitely.