In a theater season so far dominated by wall-to-wall Shakespeare, unbelievably high ticket prices to see Daniel Craig in a lackluster revival of Betrayal and the shocking embarrassment that is Big Fish, Fun Home, a musical adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about growing up in a funeral home, coming out of the closet and finally coming to terms with the past, at the Public Theater, stands out as the most heartfelt, innovative and altogether stunning show of the fall.
The Public has lately displayed a decidedly mixed rate of success with musicals. While there have been many duds (Venice, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Into the Woods revival, Giant), it also produced the sold-out dance party hit Here Lies Love, which is expected to eventually return at a commercial venue. It’s unclear whether Fun Home, whose limited run has been twice extended by the Public, will merit a transfer to Broadway. Given its subject matter and experimental structure, it would no doubt be a hard sell, but nothing is impossible. After all, if Next to Normal can make it, so can Fun Home.
Structured as a multilayered memoir, it begins with the adult Alison (Beth Malone) looking back on her childhood in 1970s Pennsylvania and thinking back on her late father (Michael Cerveris), an intense, complicated man who tried earnestly to appear as a respectable husband, father, high school teacher, funeral home director and part-time home renovator while hiding his homosexuality, which led to his propositioning local boys, getting caught by the authorities and ultimately killing himself by stepping in front of a moving truck. His erratic behavior put Alison’s supportive mother (Judy Kuhn) in an extremely uncomfortable position.
As a carefree young girl (Sydney Lucas), Alison is seen sitting happily in front of the television set watching unrealistically cheery sitcoms and playing in the funeral home, at one point even hiding out in a coffin. As a college-age teen (Alexandra Socha), Alison freely embraces her own homosexuality thanks to an exciting new girlfriend (Roberta Colindrez), leading her to declare, “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.” After bravely coming out to her parents in a letter, she learns the truth of her father’s sexuality.
The creative team, in and of itself, is fascinating and offbeat. Composer Jeanine Tesori – whose career has ranged from commercial fare like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek to intimate gems such as Violet and Caroline, or Change (which was produced by the Public a decade ago) – provides one of her strongest scores to date, going back and forth between melodic period pop and softer, more dissonant sounds. Performer-playwright Lisa Kron (Well, 2.5 Minute Ride), who is simultaneously appearing in the Public’s acclaimed staging of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, turns in lyrics and dialogue that nicely compliment Tesori’s music and are highly specific to character. Sam Gold, who became one of the most sought-after directors after his smash staging of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation four years ago, brings a sense of vitality to this unique staging.
While Malone is sober and searching, Socha is unleashed and vulnerable, and Lucas is fanciful and mischievous, together they pull off the incredible feat of conveying a single character at different times and making it all feel like a unified transformation in personality. Cerveris, who easily bested his miscast co-stars in the recent Broadway revival of Evita, imbues the father with complexity, fear and dreaminess. Kuhn, although relatively underused, is nonetheless excellent at conveying her character’s tense state of mind.