New! Fresh! Original! We toss those kudos around a lot in this business. (It’s like calling everyone “darling.”) But “Fun Home” really earns the praise. Lisa Kron, who wrote both book and lyrics, assembles words and images in unexpected ways to dramatize the bittersweet memoir (based on the 2006 graphic novel by Alison Bechdel) of a grown woman remembering the troubled father she loved in spite of himself. Sam Gold’s direction brings lucidity to the complex mechanics of staging a story that takes place in three time frames. And Jeanine Tesori’s haunting music doesn’t sound a bit like anyone else’s music.
This enormously likeable show was a popular hit when it opened at the Public Theater in 2013. Re-staged for the Circle in the Square (more precisely, theater in the round), the chamber musical benefits from being brought into closer proximity to the audience. That’s a huge advantage for a show with so many introspective, confessional songs. At the same time, the oddly configured stage necessitates much swiveling in place to take in the entire house. And David Zinn’s somewhat over-dressed stage features big set pieces (including a piano and a coffin) that pop up and down from trapdoors.
Nonetheless, the takeaway is that this show (a finalist for the Pulitzer) could be staged on the back of a truck and still break your heart.
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At the age of 43, Alison (Beth Malone, in calm command of her pensive character) feels hopelessly stalled in her personal life and budding career as a professional cartoonist. Looking for inspiration in a box of mementos (a.k.a. “crap,” as she calls it), she becomes lost in childhood memories of growing up in a big Victorian house that doubled as a funeral home.
In the raucous “Come to the Fun Home,” young Alison (Sydney Lucas, brimming with talent) and her two brothers take control of a viewing room (complete with silk-lined casket) and rock out on a gleeful welcome to their strange household. But it’s not all fun and games living under the same roof with their domineering father, the funeral director, who is also a schoolteacher and an absolute fanatic about restoring his Victorian home.
Bruce Bechdel (Michael Cerveris) is a complex and morally ambiguous character, a tyrant and a bully who nonetheless loves his children and has a special bond with Alison. Cerveris fully embraces this complicated man and all his bewildering contradictions. It’s only now, as a grown woman, that his daughter finds the courage to make peace with the man.
At the drawing table where she’s composing her memoir, Alison keeps thinking up and discarding captions for her sketches. Especially this revealing one of her troubled father: “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.”
She always knew she’d have to write about him someday, to exorcise his troubled spirit, as well as her own ambivalent feelings about him. (“I can’t find my way through. Just like you. Am I just like you?”)
To answer that existential question, Kron and Tesori have Alison consulting the recollections of both the nine-year-old self played by Lucas (who won an Obie in the role) and Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs), the 19-year-old college freshman who finds her direction when she joyously identifies herself as a lesbian. Middle Allison has one of the best numbers in the show, “Changing My Major,” in which she pays exuberant tribute to Joan (a perfect character study from Roberta Colindrez), her first lover.
“Ring of Keys,” another trenchant musical number, is sung by the young tomboy Alison, who can’t articulate her sexual feelings but wholeheartedly declares her admiration for the butch lesbian who swaggers into a diner swinging a powerful set of keys.
But the narrative keeps circling back to Bruce, whose desperate dalliances with young men may have gone unnoticed by his young children but did not escape the notice of his wife, Helen (a shattering performance from Judy Kuhn). In the absolutely wrenching “Days and Days,” Helen lets us know how unbearable it is to share her life with someone who is living a lie and can hardly bring himself to look at her.
Tesori saves her most devastating confessional number for Bruce’s own despairing epiphany at the end of the show. “I guess I’m older,” he reflects, in one of Kron’s most incisive lyrics, “and it’s harder when you’re older to begin.”