Review by Tulis McCall
At the conclusion of Fun Home, the audience stands as one entity and roars. This is not one of those standing ovations that makes you wish the tunnel to New Jersey was more discriminating in whom it lets in to the City, never mind the theatres. This is a visceral response that we are powerless to deny.
Throughout the 100 minutes of this magnificent show we were knit together by the silken threads of magic that Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron have created from the graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. The magic is delivered by a cast that is spot-on (even the 8 year old) and guided by the direction of Sam Gold and voila! Simple, right?
The only other times I ever heard this noise was in 2009 at the conclusion of A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM, directed by Liv Ullman and starring Cate Blanchett and at the conclusion of a day-long marathon of the The Norman Conquests also at the Circle In The Square. 2009 was a good year for theatre.
Alison Bechdel is a brave writer. I was privileged to see the first incarnation of Fun Home in 2013 at The Public Theater. She steers us into her family’s center like a heat seeking missile. No one is spared. No one is favored. No one is pushed aside. Everyone gets their propers, even if the story is not a pretty one. As in her graphic novels, Bechdel is a character in her own story. The present Alison (Beth Malone) is an artist working through the images she is creating for a story. She is the viewer and the viewed. For every image she must find a caption, and a few minutes into the story she finds one:
My Dad and I both grew up in the same small
And he was gay
And I was gay
And he killed himself
And I… became a lesbian cartoonist.
And we audience folk? We laugh at the combination of truth and absurdity. It only gets better.
In that small town in Pennsylavnai the Bechdel Family lived in a renovated-to-the-teeth historical home. Bruce (Michael Cerveris) is the obsessed restorer. Like a lot of small towns residents, he had two jobs. During the day he taught high school English. When not teaching he ran the Bechdel Funeral Home – the Fun Home. And when not doing that, he was thinking about or picking up other men, many of whom were younger than he by some serious years. Alison’s mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) – also a teacher – lived a life of quiet desperation. Like a lot of women in the post war years, she took on the job of making things look good to the casual observer. All those women shared that dirty little secret. Late in the show she sings Days and Days, and there was not a single soul in the house who did not think of a woman she knew, or who was perhaps that exact woman. The children Alison (Sydney Lucas), Christian (Oscar Williams) and John (the 8 year-old Zell Steele Morrow) banded together to make the most of the situation. They didn’t know of their father’s sexual transgressions, of course, but they were on the receiving end of his OCD behavior. As an outlet they had plenty of fantasy – a musical ad Come To The Fun Home that they create stops the show, as does the musical fantasy of TV characters that Alison dreams up.
The incarnation of Alison (Emily Skeggs) at Oberlin College is filled with revelations. She is indeed gay, and to prove it she falls in love with Joan (Roberta Colindrez) who is about the only “normal” character in the bunch. Joan has no facade, no false moves. She tumbles, literally, into Alison’s life and the apple cart will never be righted again. When Alison bursts out of the closet, singing Changing My Major and making us fall in love with her, her parents receive true news with a mixture of denial and bitterness. It is sad news to Helen who has been living with a gay man all her life. Bruce glosses over the revelation with the news that he has bought another home to restore.
Throughout the performance, Alison tells us over and over again that she is looking for the truth. As she does she finds whimsy and moments of despair as well as brilliance. The music is so intimate that it almost takes your breath away. The three Alison’s all run after their father hoping for his attention. From the opening Small Alison song
Daddy, hey Daddy, come here, okay? I need you.
What are you doing? I said come here!
You need to do what I tell you to do!
Listen to me.
to what becomes their final conversation where Alison never says what she is thinking, we see the spiral as it plays out. Cerveris gives us Bruce’s final moments in a brilliant blizzard of words and emotions.
Because Kron and Tesori are spare and certain writers, we go willingly into the basement of the Bechdel family, and inhale them into our very being. They are, after all, us.
The reason we stand at the end of the show is because we are full to the brim with the gift that is being given us. We have sat in the dark, quiet in all the right places, laughing whenever possible, misting up and even crying when we are are the recipients of a direct hit. Standing at the end is our retaliation. We must howl or we will explode.
This is the theatre that makes you remember that the roots of this art form are found in temples. Fun Home is a transcendent experience. It does more than take your breath away; it gets you to offer it up gladly. Hence that standing roar when the final light cue fades to black.
There should be more than 5 stars for this.
FUN HOME Music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by Lisa Kron; based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel; directed by Sam Gold
WITH: Michael Cerveris (Bruce), Judy Kuhn (Helen), Beth Malone (Alison), Sydney Lucas (Small Alison), Emily Skeggs (Middle Alison), Roberta Colindrez (Joan), Zell Steele Morrow (John), Joel Perez (Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby Jeremy) and Oscar Williams (Christian).
Choreography by Danny Mefford; sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Kai Harada; orchestrations by John Clancy; music director, Chris Fenwick; music coordinator, Antoine Silverman; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; production stage manager, Lisa Dawn Cave; production manager, Juniper Street Productions; company manager, Tracy Geltman; general manager, 321 Theatrical Management. A Public Theater production; Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director; presented by Fox Theatricals, Barbara Whitman, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Tom Casserly, Paula Marie Black, Latitude Link, Terry Schnuck/Jack Lane, the Forstalls, Nathan Vernon, Mint Theatrical, Elizabeth Armstrong, Jam Theatricals, Delman Whitney and Kristin Caskey and Mike Isaacson. Continues at the Circle in the Square Theater, 235 West 50th Street, 212-239-6200, funhomebroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.