“Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her relationship with her closeted father and her coming to terms with her sexuality, was a book I found heartbreaking and brilliant when I read it as a freshman at DePaul University. Bechdel, whose work I was familiar with having read “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the gay newspaper in Iowa, managed to use a medium usually viewed as trivial and tell a very cerebral story without coming off as pretentious. Naturally I was curious to see how the musical adaptation turned out simply because it seemed like the least likely source material for a musical, but there’s currently a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, so 2015 is the year of Daring Concepts on Broadway Actually Being Successful at the Box Office. (“Fun Home,” although not grossing nearly as much as “Hamilton,” is consistently selling out.)
The musical “Fun Home,” written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, manages to be an incredibly smart show without taking line-for-line what Bechdel wrote in her memoir. Discussions are had about “Collette,” kids sing lyrics about aneurysm hooks and the lyrics have motifs that work well to convey the pain of the Bechdel women living in the stifling facade of Bruce (Michael Cerveris). In one scene where Bruce seduces Roy (Joel Perez), the handyman, Helen (Judy Kuhn) sings “Maybe not right now. Maybe not right now” while in another room, aware of what is happening. A few scenes later, those lyrics and music pops up when Small Alison (Gabriella Pizzolo at the performance I attended) wants to wear sneakers and a shirt instead of a party dress, but is told no by her father before he tells her she can dress how she wants if she’s okay with everyone judging her. Somehow the show manages to still feel accessible even when book titles and discussions are being tossed around.
Kron and Tesori manage to avoid having any numbers that feel unnecessary. Out of context, “Come to the Fun Home” and “Raincoat of Love” could give an impression of being numbers where the show grinds to a halt, but both of them serve important narrative functions. “Come to the Fun Home” shows how the Bechdel children tried to have a normal childhood while also helping in the family funeral home, which then leads in very well to Small Alison being shown a dead body by her father. “Raincoat of Love” is a fantasy sequence where Small Alison imagines her family happy and Partridge Family-esque, not torn apart by her father’s secrets.
The production also manages to succeed because it’s staged in the round–I don’t know how this show can be taken on tour–and since it’s a memory musical, we see Alison (Beth Malone) interloping in her memories, cringing at the awkwardness of her as a first-year student at Oberlin College. It also makes it incredibly easy to watch everything happening on stage. There are also brilliant flourishes such as the items in the Bechdel family house disappearing through the trap doors, leaving large holes in the stage as Bruce sings right before committing suicide.
The only potential problem I could see people having with the show is Bruce is viewed as being gay by Alison, but Helen simply explains he’s had affairs with other men. In Bechdel’s novel, she writes the reason she refers to her father as gay instead of bisexual is possibly because it then gives them a connection. I didn’t have an issue with it since sexuality is complicated and I feel like the show dealt more with the very complex relationship Alison had with her father.
Sam Gold has done a fantastic job directing a terrific cast, with standout performances from Cerveris, Malone and Kuhn. (I was silently sobbing during “Days and Days,” Helen’s big number. The 2014-15 season on Broadway was a good season for supporting actors giving fantastic performances.) I have been incredibly lucky to see three productions this season where it felt like every element of the production was perfect. It really feels like a bold new musical and theater is better with it in existence.