Fun Home, a remarkable musical now running at the Public Theater through December 29, swiftly lays out what it seems to be about, when a middle-aged Alison compares herself to her father:
“My 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.”
Those are the bare facts of Alison Bechdel’s childhood, which she turned into a celebrated graphic memoir in 2006, and which has now been adapted for the stage by playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori. What makes the musical extraordinary goes beyond the story. In one of the first scenes of the show, Alison’s father Bruce, portrayed splendidly (as usual) by Michael Cerveris, is rummaging through a box a neighbor gave him of items that the neighbor considered junk. Bruce knows they are treasures – that old piece of cloth is gorgeous Irish linen; that tarnished teapot is silver:
This has traveled continents to get here and crossed an ocean of time
And somehow landed in this box under a layer of grime
It’s a fitting metaphor for the show itself, especially when we simultaneously see Alison as an adult looking through a clone of the same box with the same tarnished teapot – for her an act of memory…and part of the puzzle she is trying to figure out, the puzzle of her childhood. The makers of the musical recognize and reveal just how precious the seemingly tarnished real-life story of Alison Bechdel’s family. “Fun Home” is a work of theater that is inventive, entertaining, in places exhilarating, and almost inexpressibly heartbreaking.
There is always a danger in praising a show too exuberantly, for it raises expectations. But Bechdel’s novel has withstood such praise — Time Magazine called it the best book of the year – and continues to gain adherents. Fun Home the musical is different from the book in tone and in some of its characterizations and details, but, in its own way, it is just as startling, and groundbreaking.
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Bruce Bechdel was a small town high school English teacher, as well as a funeral director, inheriting his father’s funeral home, which his family called the Fun Home. We see why, when Alison at age 8 (“Small Alison,” portrayed by Sydney Lucas) uses the parlor as a playground, playing hide and seek in the caskets with her two brothers (Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale), and together singing “Come To The Fun Home,” a rousing rock mock commercial for their funeral home:
You know our mourners–
They like, they like, they like
(In what other musical will you hear “psalm” rhymed with “embalm”?)
Bruce was also an obsessive restorer of old homes, most notably the family house — a huge mansion that he bought for a song because it was so run-down. This too could be called the Fun Home, although ironically, since Alison always suspected Bruce saw his family primarily as free labor. There are layers upon layers of such irony in the musical, all the more effective because they are applied with a subtle brush.
Three different actresses portray Alison at different stages of her life – Small Alison at 8 (Lucas), Medium Alison at 19 (Alexandra Socha) and the 43-year-old Alison of the present day (Beth Malone.) I’ve never seen this done better. Even their hair is precisely on target – the cascading curls of the little child, who resists her father’s insistence that she wear a barrette to keep the hair out of her eyes, while she would prefer just to get a crew cut (even then she knew); the unflattering mop-top of the teenager, away at college and awkwardly exploring her sexuality; the efficient short hairstyle (not quite a crew cut) of the middle-aged adult, watching her past, drawing it, and searching for just the right captions.
Alison celebrates her coming out in college with the ecstatic, hilarious song Changing My Major
I’m changing my major to Joan
I’m changing my major to sex with Joan
I’m changing my major to sex with Joan with a minor in kissing Joan
It is only when she writes a letter home coming out to her parents that she learns about her father’s own, secret sexual orientation. She hears it from her mother Helen (portrayed with restraint and depths of feeling by Judy Kuhn.) Four months later, Bruce commits suicide.
This doesn’t sound like “Annie,” nor even “Matilda.” Its darkness feels for real; its unconventionality uncomfortable; its sadness unspeakable, much less singable. It is a testament to the talent poured into this musical — by Bechdel herself, her adaptors, the always-impressive director Sam Gold, and the show’s flawless nine-member cast — that “Fun Home” is, among its many other qualities, actually fun.
Fun Home songlist
It All Comes Back (Opening) – Full Cast
Welcome To Our House on Maple Avenue – Helen, Small Alison, John, Christian, Bruce
Come To The Fun Home – Small Alison, John, Christian
Helen’s Etude – Helen, Bruce, Roy, Small Alison, John, Christian
Al For Short – Small Alison
Changing My Major – Medium Alison
Maps – Bruce, Medium Alison
Raincoat of Love – Full Cast
Pony Girl – Bruce
Ring of Keys – Small Alison
Days and Days – Helen
Telephone Wire – Bruce, Alison
Edges of the World – Bruce
Flying Away (Finale) – Alison, Small Alison, Medium Alison
At the Public Theater
Music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the book by Alison Bechdel; directed by Sam Gold; sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Kai Harada; projections by Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg; wig design by Paul Huntley; music director, Chris Fenwick; orchestrations by John Clancy; music contractor, Antoine Silverman; choreography by Danny Mefford
Cast: Griffin Birney (Christian), Michael Cerveris (Bruce), Roberta Colindrez (Joan), Noah Hinsdale (John), Judy Kuhn (Helen), Sydney Lucas (Small Alison), Beth Malone (Alison), Joel Perez (Roy/Others) and Alexandra Socha (Medium Alison).
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Fun Home has already extended several times. It is now scheduled to run until December 29.
Update: Fun Home extends for the fourth time, through January 12.