Before I start my review of “Fun Home”, let me cut to the chase. I loved it. Just go see it, don’t even read this first. Switch away to the Public Theater’s website and get your tickets. If you liked the book, like musical theatre, love Alison Bechdel, then experience it yourself.
But if you want to keep reading, then let’s get to work. For those not familiar, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”, is a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (long-time writer/artist of the groundbreaking and legendary comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”) published in 2006 which caused a sensation not only among her fans but was named as the top book of the year by Time Magazine and garnered a slew of nominations and awards while shooting into the New York Times Best Seller list, even becoming a textbook used in university courses. She followed it up with the arguably more complex “Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama”.
Now comes “Fun Home” as a musical, a form which Bechdel admits she’s not entirely familiar with. Well, she can rest assured that her book was put into safe musical theatre hands with music by multiple Tony nominee Jeanine Tesori (Caroline or Change), book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (In the Wake, Well), and direction by Sam Gold (Seminar).
They had the unenviable task of taking a beloved graphic novel and translating it into a different form with its own particular structure and rules--and pitfalls, too. It could have gone so wrong, but luckily, they’ve succeeded beautifully. They’ve taken the graphic novel apart, laying it out sequence-by-sequence, seeing where things could intersect, overlap, co-exist while adding songs and dance numbers tailored for the company they cast. Now, this might be exactly what those who loved the book might find objectionable. Because of the time constraints and differences in form, they could not include every panel or favorite sequence, nor could they make everything visually ape Bechdel’s drawings. Instead, they have three timelines unfolding onstage simultaneously, with Alison as a child growing up in Pennsylvania living in a funeral home run by her father (the “fun home” of the title), as a freshman in college discovering herself, and as an artist in the present day observing what’s happening onstage while assembling all the pieces. *SPOILER* The puzzle is her father’s secret gay life and suicide, juxtaposed with her awakening identity from a young age as a lesbian. It’s skillfully and movingly done. A revolving stage helps the action slip effortlessly from one timeline to another.
I can imagine, however, it’s rough going for some with this subject matter--her father hitting on an underage boy (well, high schooler), Alison’s first sexual experience with another lesbian, young Alison asking her father why he’s sneaking out on her and her brothers (to pick up a trick during Fleet Week in Manhattan), among many others. Well, not difficult for me since I identified with much of it, in my own way. But what better way to make it all go down than with singing and dancing? Now, I saw someone ask in a theatre chat board why make this a musical at all. I think “Fun Home” is actually a better candidate than others (don’t get me started) for musicalization. The songs allow for the expression of repressed emotions and inner turmoil experienced by Alison, her father and her mother and all that is left unsaid between them. The songs also happen to be catchy and memorable, fun at times, heartbreaking at others. They’re tailored for each cast member’s voice, something you usually don’t notice until you do. And perhaps most importantly, they move the stories forward and reveal what hasn’t been expressed in dialogue. There are several standouts including the title song, a Motown meets The Brady Bunch jam where Alison and her brothers burst out of caskets singing a mock jingle for their father’s funeral home, young Alison’s ode to the beauty of a butch delivery woman, and a quietly devastating song detailing one of the last conversations between Alison and her father. I hope they make a cast album quick!
The cast is excellent. In particular, Michael Cerveris gives an extremely sympathetic portrayal of the complicated father--overbearing, accomplished, tender at times, obsessed with appearances, while seemingly able to handle his contradictions and double-life until his ultimate suicide. Alison is portrayed by Sydney Lucas (young Alison), Alexandra Socha (teenage Alison), Beth Malone (adult Alison), who are all perfectly cast but if there is any standout it is Sydney who has the largest part of the three. She astonishes for being so accomplished and believable for such a young actor.
Altogether, the creative team has made this “Fun Home” a living, breathing entity of its own, a wonderful companion to the graphic novel. It should please fans while reaching a whole new audience. Broadway next? And beyond. I’m hoping that every gay and lesbian theatre or performance space is jamming the Public with requests to produce this show, because it will bring audiences back.
“Fun Home” runs at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan, through November 17, 2013.
The complete cast of “Fun Home” features Griffin Birney (Christian Bechdel), Michael Cerveris (Bruce Bechdel), Roberta Colindrez (Joan), Noah Hinsdale (John Bechdel), Judy Kuhn (Helen), Sydney Lucas (young Alison), Beth Malone (adult Alison), Joel Perez (Roy), and Alexandra Socha (teenage Alison).