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New York City Theater

"Fun Home"
Circle in the Square Theater

“I want to know what’s true,
Dig deep into who
And what and why and when
Until now gives way to then.”

                        from “Fun Home”

Going back to go ahead -- finding the links and the disconnects, the truths and the façades -- informs “Fun Home,” the heartbreaking, funny, teary, joyous musical that started at the Public before moving to Broadway. The Pulitzer Prize finalist flows differently uptown, its focus more sprawling, but it remains a work of brilliance, a salute to history, an attempt to make form out of chaos using great good humor and doses of sadness and frustration. It is, in short, a work at once domestic and universal, punctuated by catchy music, intelligent lyrics, a sensitive libretto and performers who, by inhabiting their worlds, inhabit ours as well.

Based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, the memoir tells of the family dynamics that freed her and imprisoned her father. “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town,” she says. “And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.” That’s the nutshell around which librettist / lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori build their structure.

The title refers to the funeral home run by Bruce. Wife Helen and their three children – Alison, Christian and John – take Bruce’s profession for granted. (He’s also a high school English teacher and amateur historian.) Funerals are accepted parts of their lives: the kids can be as at ease playing in a coffin as pretending to be an airplane. So adjusted are they that they make up a hilarious commercial called “Come to the Fun Home.”

But there are worms eating away at the family fabric. The time is the late 1960s to early 2000s (Stonewall to civil unions), a time of great change in the gay world. Closeted Bruce has to hide his desires, even neglect his children, while pursuing furtive hook-ups. For Alison, played by three actors at various ages (8, 19 and 43), discovery into “who, what, why and when” is held in check until she’s in college and falls for a fellow student, prompting the giddy song, “I’m Changing My Major to Joan.”

Writing to her parents about her lesbianism, she gets no reaction from Bruce but Helen responds with the moving “Days and Days,” about how knowing her husband’s secrets led to a life of “posing and bragging and fits of rage.” Yet, even in such a family, “every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance,” says Alison.

Under Sam Gold’s precise direction, the musical’s complexities are mirrored in the characters’ ambivalences. Michael Cerveris is all repressed passion, conveying Bruce’s torturous path with a catch in his voice, a hesitation that mirrors his being torn between libido and duty. Cerveris depicts Bruce as a man splitting apart, bursts of anger competing with desire, shame with longing.

He deserves his Tony nomination as do Judy Kuhn for her introspective, long-suffering Helen, Beth Malone for her searching older Alison, Emily Skeggs for her exuberant middle Alison and Sydney Lucas for her tomboyish, uncomprehending little Alison.

Except for the over-loud orchestra under music director and keyboardist Chris Fenwick, this is an impeccable production of a show that, whatever its commercial fate, will live on. Not only does it reflect an era of significant societal changes, it reinforces that line from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”: “The world only spins forward.”

--David A. Rosenberg
May 18, 2015


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