Show/Venue: Fun Home at Circle in the Square
Date: Wednesday, March 6th, 2015 @ 2pm
Starring: Beth Malone, Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs
Sometime last year, my friend, Michelle, told me about Fun Home when it was showing at the Public Theatre. I looked up the plot online and thought “a show about a funeral home and a girl’s relationship with her late father? How could that be a decent show?” I quickly regretted my decision to not see this show and was really excited to find out that it was being developed for a Broadway run. I subsequently bought Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and devoured the material on the L train to and from work in a span of two days.
With 12 Tony Award nominations, the updated musical of Fun Home, is leading the pack and almost all of the lead actors and actresses have received recognition for their work in this show. Playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre, the audience gets an amazing view of show and the setup almost encourages them to see the show a few times, as every seat offers a difference perspective of the show.
Alison is played at various ages and stages of her life, which helps to establish her relationship with her father and how her own coming out awoke her to his own inner demons as a closeted gay man. The show opens with Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) as she begs her father to come and play “airplane” with her, but he would rather go through a bunch of antiques found in a neighbor’s garage (IT ALL COMES BACK). Alison’s father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris), takes a fine attention to detail and shows his daughter the finer things in life through Irish damask linen and polished silver, while she would rather play and have some human contact with her father.
The show transitions back and forth between present day Alison (Beth Malone), who is drawing her graphic novel, while narrating the story. She takes out a similar silver kettle to help her remember her childhood and for ideas of what to illustrate in her book. Going back to Small Alison, Bruce has learned that an important guest from the local historical society will be coming to their home. The Bechdel family has been living in a house that their father has painstakingly worked to restore and preserve and has become well-known in their small community of Beech Creek, PA. Their mother, Helen (Judy Kuhn), encourages the children to help her clean up the house and do what “he wants” to make everything just so for their important guest (WELCOME TO OUR HOUSE ON MAPLE AVENUE).
Then going to Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs), who has just started college at Oberlin and is still drawing, despite her father’s wishes, we start to see how her life is developing. It’s in college that Alison begins to realize that she might be gay. She finds some books that help her understand what she’s feeling and she gets the courage to attend meetings of her school’s Gay Union. It’s here that Joan (Roberta Colindrez), spots her and they start to form a friendship.
Back to Alison’s childhood, as Small Alison and her two brothers, Christian (Oscar Williams) and John (Zell Steele Morrow), have found creative ways to play in their old home, which is also the local funeral home (i.e. “Fun Home”) and when Bruce finds them playing in a display casket, he gets upset. This doesn’t seem to rattle the children, as they jump around and play, which turns into their own song and dance number/commercial for the Bechdel Fun Home (COME TO THE FUN HOME).
We start to see some of Bruce’s indiscretions, as Helen plays the piano (HELEN’S ETUDE), Bruce invites one of his former students, Roy (Joel Perez), into another room for a drink. Bruce and Roy flirt with one another, both wanting more, but also with a twinge of knowing what they want to do is “wrong.” At college, Middle Alison expresses her feelings through letters to her parents and how things are going for her while away at college. She deliberately hides her newest revelation for the time being.
Then there’s a glimpse into Small Alison’s world as she struggles with her father’s wishes to wear a dress and how she wants to wear jeans and a t-shirt. The back and forth between the two, as Alison points out Bruce is wearing a pink shirt and it’s “a girl color” and he bullies her into not being “the only girl there not wearing a dress” (PARTY DRESS).
Back to Middle Alison as she explains to Joan how she realized that she was gay. Joan asks Alison questions about how she came out, which she does to for the first time to Joan. Joan encourages Alison to come out to her parents and she does, by writing them a letter. Alison and Joan kiss, which leads to Alison’s first lesbian experience and inspires her to “leap out of the closet” (CHANGING MY MAJOR).
Over the next few scenes, we see more of Alison’s relationship with her father. Small Alison is working on a project of all the places that her family has been. She shows her dad a drawing including their home, places that he has visited, where other family members are and a few other creative illustrations. Bruce reacts with frustration, as he wants to show her the “right” way to draw the surrounding nature scenes, including how to properly shade the drawing for depth. They get into a yelling match, as Helen tries to encourage Bruce to just let Alison be a child and draw however she wants (MAPS). Alison then sings about drawing her childhood and a map of where she grew up and how it relates to her current development of her graphic novel.
In Middle Alison’s flashback, she writes her parents another letter. She hasn’t heard from them since she came out and wonders what they are thinking about her. Which leads into Small Alison watching television, as Bruce enters and snaps off the TV show, saying she should read a book instead of wasting her time with the television. All Alison wants is to have a normal, fun family, like the one that she sees on the TV and not the one she is stuck with, as her parents are fighting, again. Then Roy, Middle Alison and Joan appear in costumes similar to the ones worn by the Osmond Family on TV and they sing just like on the show (RAINCOAT OF LOVE).
Then, Small Alison, Christian and John with their father on a trip to New York City, where he leaves in the middle of the night to “get a newspaper” and Alison realizes that he was probably out cruising in the city. How could she have been so blind to what was going on? Bruce tries to make an exit, but is caught by Small Alison and he then offers to sing to her, so she can sleep (PONY GIRL).
Middle Alison gets a letter from her father, where he first addresses his stressful time at work, with long hours at the funeral home. Alison’s coming out is almost mentioned as an afterthought, as he thinks she’s going through her “experimental” phase and alludes to his own discretions. Bruce then tells Alison that her mother is taking the news harder than expected. Alison realizes that maybe she and her father are not alike at all; he can’t seem to open up his mind to understand his gay daughter.
Next, Small Alison is at the local diner with her father, when she sees a butch female for the first time and strangely identifies with her (the brilliant, RING OF KEYS). She describes seeing this woman with her “swagger,” dressed in men’s clothing and so sure of who she is; she was everything Small Alison wanted to be and couldn’t be. Perhaps this is when she starts to realize that it’s ok to be different and not like all the other girls at school.
Finally, Middle Alison hears from her parents. Through this interaction, her mother reveals that Bruce has been having gay relationships for years. The realization that she might be more like her father than she ever thought sends Alison into a tailspin. Joan is there to support Alison, as the audience gets a snapshot into how her family’s life is imploding at home. Bruce seems to be falling apart with Alison’s revelation and things that he cannot control.
Middle Alison brings Joan back to her home to meet her parents. Joan goes off to rest in the house and Alison is left along with her mother. It’s during this time that Helen tells her daughter more about Bruce’s relationships (the beautiful, DAYS AND DAYS). Helen reveals Bruce’s relationships with a lover in Europe, underage boys; giving them alcohol, having to see a psychiatrist and avoiding jail time.
Middle Alison becomes present day Alison, as she goes for a drive with her father, where she tries to work up the courage to discuss what they now have in common (TELEPHONE WIRE). Bruce brings up the idea of going to a “seedy club,” where no doubt, he has been several times, but he’s forgotten that his daughter isn’t old enough to go. Alison tries to find the right opportunity to talk to him; to ask all the questions that she wants to, but it hangs over her like a storm cloud. Bruce goes off into his own thoughts, as he remembers a boy from college that he “messed around” with. In this moment, Alison shares her thoughts too, but he doesn’t hear them, they were just wishes and thoughts. The drive with her father is over before she gets the chance to ask and this was the last time she really interacted with her dad.
A few weeks later, Bruce is killed when he is hit by a truck near another old house that he is restoring. It is ruled as an accident, but Alison is wonders if it was a suicide. After all, she was able to live her life out and accepted, while it wasn’t something that Bruce could do (EDGES OF THE WORLD).
The story ends with Alison struggling to find the right caption for her book and what to say in the end. She remembers working with her father in the house, teaching at the high school, working in the yard, and playing “airplane.” All three Alison’s remember parts of the story (FLYING AWAY) and their relationship with Bruce.
The shows and staging at Circle in the Square are always wonderful, as the production team has to consider every aspect of the show, when played in the round. Some of the lighting cues were a nod to the basis of the story being Bechdel’s graphic novel, as squares of neon light were projected onto the stage; Bruce and Alison told their stories as if they were in panels of the novel. The orchestra is fully visible during the show and the actors enter from various walkways around the stage; even using the stairways that the audience enters through to come onto the stage. Due to this careful staging, you really feel like you are a part of the show and even watching the other audience members react, becomes a part of your experience. I noticed that after a particular scene touched me, that I was looking directly across at other audience members to see if they were having a similar reaction.
I really enjoyed Sydney Lucas’ performance as Small Alison and the scene stealing Zell Steele Morrow as her younger brother, John, during “Come to the Fun Home.” Lucas does a great job portraying young Alison’s struggle with her own sexual identity, even when she didn’t know it fully at the time. The way she talks about wanting to wear “boy shirts and pants” along with the refusal to wear her barrette and how she longs for a crewcut, all add subtle cues to her inner struggle and relationship with her father.
As Middle Alison, Emily Skeggs does a wonderful job of portraying Alison’s awkward phase and how her relationship with Joan really encouraged her to come out to her parents. Skeggs shows a more vulnerable side of Alison, how her realization that she and her father were more alike that she could ever know and the burden of thinking her own coming out story could have been the thing that ended her father’s life.
As Bruce and Helen, Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn, have earned well-deserved Tony Nominations for their roles. Cerveris is on point through all of the OCD-tendencies of Bruce and how his own insecurities have lead him to fight with Alison to wear a dress and to color inside the lines for her school project. Kuhn gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Helen struggles with Alison’s homosexuality and reveals her husband’s secrets to her only daughter through a passionate and touching ballad, “Days and Days,” which only made me wish I had brought a pack of Kleenex to the show.
As present day Alison, Beth Malone, gives an astonishing performance as the story’s narrator. Malone is on stage for the entire show and gives the audience “captions” for her graphic novel, as the story flashes back to her childhood and college days, establishing the plot and diving into the father-daughter relationship thread that weaves throughout the story. Malone gets a wonderful song, “Telephone Wire,” as she remembers trying to talk about being gay with her father and it quickly became one of my favorite songs in the show. Although no resolution is reached between Alison and her father, Malone does a great job of taking the audience along on Alison’s journey.
“Fun Home” will easily be my favorite musical of the 2015-2016 Broadway Season. I can’t wait to come back and see it again and experience the show from another different perspective. It will also be interesting to see how the show evolves as the younger cast members will eventually age out of their respective roles. I’m not sure how an actress could follow Lucas’ performance, who has been in the show since the Public Theatre staging, but no matter what Lucas can know she was a part of something special and has already established a great career for herself. So, if you’re looking for a moving, beautiful and passionate show to see this season, definitely make Fun Home your first choice.
1. IT ALL COMES BACK (OPENING)
2. “Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children…”
3. WELCOME TO OUR HOUSE ON MAPLE AVENUE
4. NOT TOO BAD
5. “Just had a good talk with Dad..”
6. COME TO THE FUN HOME
7. HELENE’S ETUDE
8. “Thanks for the care package…”
9. PARTY DRESS
10. CHANGING MY MAJOR
11. “I leapt out of the closet…”
13. “Read a book…”
14. RAINCOAT OF LOVE
15. “Clueless in New York…”
16. PONY GIRL
17. “A flair for the dramatic…”
18. RING OF KEYS
19. “Let me introduce you to my gay dad…”
20. “Shortly after we were married…”
21. DAYS AND DAYS
22. “You ready to go for that drive?...”
23. TELEPHONE WIRE
24. “It was great to have you home…”
25. EDGES OF THE WORLD
26. “This is what I have of you…”
27. FLYING AWAY (FINALE)