Fun Home, Lisa Kron’s musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name, is intense and somber but beautifully rendered. Presented in the round at Circle in the Square Theater, with a stellar cast led by the riveting Michael Cerveris (Evita, Cymbeline, Sweeney Todd), this production should be at the top of everyone’s spring/summer must-see list.
Simultaneously tracking a teenager’s coming of age along with the events that lead up to a family tragedy, the plot’s density of melodrama could have easily become overbearing in lesser hands. But thanks to the sensitive work by the cast and crew, helmed by director Sam Gold (The Realistic Joneses, Seminar), the final result is emotionally cathartic in the most positive sense.
As in Bechdel’s book, this autobiographical family drama focuses on the author’s experience growing up in a funeral home with an idiosyncratic but troubled father who, as it is revealed fairly early in the play, is a closeted homosexual whose life ends in suicide.
This source material may not seem like obvious fodder for a musical rendering. But the vaulting, modern score by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change; Thoroughly Modern Millie), performed by a nimble and mostly acoustic ensemble, takes the material to a level of broader accessibility; serving a drama that is very much about internal personal angst, the musical numbers fulfill a traditional role that feels essential by the end – giving voice to the characters’ complicated and turbulent emotional lives.
The conventions that theater affords only add to the story’s layers: The grown-up Alison (Beth Malone), now a graphic artist, is a constant presence on stage, serving as both narrator of and witness to her own past. A further device has her remembrances cut between two time periods: Alison’s early childhood at home with her family and her early college experiences during which she comes out as a lesbian.
But it is the performance by Michael Cerveris as Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel, that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by capturing the many colors of a hard-to-read man who is brilliant, fussy, aesthetically passionate, deeply frustrated, and self-denying.
The father-daughter relationship between Alison and Bruce provides the central irony of the play – that while Alison was in the thrilling midst of discovering her own sexual identity, her father was nearing the end of his rope psychologically, not able to reconcile his identity as the head of a traditional family with his natural disposition.
And this is why the play never shakes off a blanket of sadness – it is saturated with the “what could have been?” regret Alison feels about not talking meaningfully with her father about his feelings before it was too late.
Whether she could have prevented his final act is uncertain, but what Fun Home leaves you hoping for is a society in which these tragedies don’t exist – a world in which people never have to deny their true selves again.
Fun Home is scheduled to run at the Circle in the Square Theatre through September 13th, 2015.