Monday, November 25, 2013

REVIEW: Fun Home

Review of the Sunday, November 17 matinee performance at the Public Theater at the Newman in New York City.  Starring Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Alexandra Socha, and Sydney Lucas.  Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Music by Jeanine Tesori.  Based on the book by Alison Bechdel .  Choreography by Danny Mefford.  Directed by Sam Gold.  1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission. Adult themes and language. Scheduled to close on December 29.

Grade A+

For me, the new musical Fun Home was an experience book-ended by tears.  Toward the beginning of the show, there is the live image of a young girl "flying" at the end of her father's outstretched legs, her arms wing-like, her smile joyfully love-filled.  The final image is the same one, this time a projected cartoon, a recognition that its artist has come to peace with, if not a complete understanding of, the complexities of her life.  My eyes filled with tears at the start for a very personal reason: I, like the girl in the scene, always craved and cherished those too few moments with my own father, where we were as one, loving each other.  Those final tears were for the heroine of our story, who was able to come to terms with a painful childhood punctuated by a sexual identity crisis, a distant mother, and the suicide of her closeted gay father.

Small Alison flies: Beth Malone, Sydney
Lucas and Michael Cerveris

They were also, I think,  tears of joy - those extra special ones reserved for those life-changing moments in a theatre.  It has been some four and a half years since I shed those same kind of tears - at a preview performance of next to normal.  Both shows have unconventional stories, characters and methods of telling their tales.  Both deal in terms that are completely theatrical.  And both allow us to connect with humanity - people that are not like us on the surface, but so much like us at their roots - in ways we never dreamed possible.  In short, the brilliant, challenging Fun Home is everything that musical theatre can be and can do.  It is one of those rare times when you leave the theatre a different, somehow better person than when you entered.

Like all of the greatest musicals of the modern era, this one is most importantly fat-free: every line of every scene and every song, each movement, each design element, everything works seamlessly together.  Enlightening characterizations, thematic meanings, ironic juxtapositions - all of the complexities of life and literature - are revealed by all of the senses that the writers and creative team demand that audience bring to the piece.  It is one of those shows that you can just feel the electricity and bond growing between the cast and the crowd, where the tears flow and the laughter swells on both sides of the footlights.  That feeling is so rare.  All of this is as heady and artistic as I've painted it - critical assessments of this piece will be written, the piece itself studied.  But what elevates this from musical to all-encompassing work of art, though, is that for all of its "academic" excellence, it never forgets the cardinal rule: theatre is entertainment.

Small Alison and her mother:
Sydney Lucas and Judy Kuhn
In many ways, this production reminds me of the current The Glass Menagerie.  Both are memory plays, and both expertly interweave the haziness of recall over time with the clarity of very specific triggers of words, items, events.  The beauty of the design elements (scenic and costume design by David Zinn; lighting design by Ben Stanton; projection design by Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg) and the imaginative, spare direction by Sam Gold, is that they all coalesce time and time again revealing a story born of memory and fueled by increased clarity.  Pools of sharp light illuminate very specific moments; specific items and pieces of furniture whirl in and out of the scene, working in tandem with the actors.  As events progress, more and more of the blanks are filled in: the stage and its turntable become fuller, the furniture and boxes of memories are unpacked from the fringes of the space and brought to the fore.  There are even times - important instances - when the memories overlap, and we see a family living together, yet tellingly apart: the kids watching TV; mom, alone, playing the piano; dad obsessing over the details of home restoration, or the details of preparing a body for burial, or the details of his latest youthful conquest.  Fun home, indeed.

"Come to the Fun Home"
Griffin Birney, Noah Hinsdale, Sydney Lucas
"Raincoat of Love" - The Company
In spite of it all, the kids have rich imaginations, revealed in two upbeat production numbers.  Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) and her brothers (Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale) play in the family funeral parlor, creating TV commercials where they pop in and out of caskets ("Come to the Fun Home").  Later, the whole cast gets involved in a fantasy dance number fueled by, of all things, The Partridge Family (talk about specific), called "Raincoat of Love."  (Choreography by Danny Mefford) There are other moments of joy throughout Lisa Kron's tight book and razor-sharp lyrics, set to the moment-specific music of Jeanine Tesori.  And they are brilliantly juxtaposed against equally profound and painfully opposite moments.

One such instance is "Days," a monumentally sad ballad gloriously delivered by the completely brilliant Judy Kuhn.  And there are those stunning moments of self-discovery: the complicated "Al for Short" and "Ring of Keys," both sung by Small Alison, when she recognizes "different" feelings - her need to wear her hair short and in anything but a dress; her recognition that there is something "interesting" about a woman truck driver.  Some may want to read something unseemly into these moments, but these are just the innocent stirrings of a young child.

Alexandra Socha and Judy Kuhn
Roberta Colindrez and Alexandra Socha
The more sexual awakening moments come from Medium Alison (the wonderfully grounded Alexandra Socha) who, after finally leaving the Fun Home, can finally confront those feelings, first at college in the awkward/humorous "Changing My Major," and then at home with the awkward/painful "Maps," where she tries to reconcile her feelings with her closeted father (is he terrified that she knows his secret?) and her cold (but warming) mother.  Medium Alison has also found her first love, Joan (the perfect first love played by Roberta Colindrez).

Three Alisons: Beth Malone, Sydney
Lucas and Alexandra Socha
Joel Perez, Michael Cerveris and Beth Malone
But this is not a show just about the coming out of a lesbian woman.  It is really as much about understanding and coming to terms with parental issues.  On the surface of it, everything seems piled against Bruce.  I mean there are even three Alisons working through this crisis of conscience.  And no scene goes by where we don't see his flaws - he cares more for how his house looks than his family feels; he uses his children as slave labor, doling out very small amounts of affection which they crave more and more.  There are three scenes that magnify his cruelties and his emotional control over his family, and all three exemplify why Michael Cerveris is giving a career-defining beyond brilliant performance, one destined to be talked about for years to come. One, is the revealing scene where, while his family is just on the other side of his study door, Bruce seduces another young stud (Joel Perez) into giving him help with his home in exchange for a glass of wine and sexual promises.  Another is the unbearably cold and cruel dismissal of his faithful wife, who finally musters the courage to confront him about his "secret life." (Both Cerveris and Kuhn are amazing in this scene - their pain registering on their faces and in their every move.) And finally, the scene that haunts me every day since I've seen it - where Alison (Beth Malone - stunning throughout, even when she is wordlessly observing) "confronts" her father, pouring out all of the questions she always wanted to ask, desperate for answers before his inevitable suicide changes everyone's lives forever.  His face speaks volumes.  His heartbreaking, infuriating performance ranks among the best I've witnessed.  Ever.

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris
There is a scene at the very beginning of the show where Small Alison and her father share an all-too-brief moment of shared joy, as they go through a box of discarded items.  "One man's junk is another man's treasure," they say.  What a perfect metaphor for this brilliant artistry.  And I think Fun Home will be one of those shows where some people will find fault and controversy.  But for me, this amazing musical is a new, shiny gem discovered in a season full of easily discarded shows.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


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