"Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you're wearing. Your short hair and your dungarees and your lace-up boots and your keys. Your ring of keys....I know you."
From the moment I first heard the song Ring of Keys during the workshop of Fun Home, I knew this show was special. Each phrase of the song was the lilting hesitation of a child trying to understand her identity--her sexual identity--but in the only terms she knows. We feel her experience her first moment of belonging gently and beautifully and from a child's perspective. Now that the workshop has born a full-production at The Public Theater, with music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, and directed by Sam Gold (The Flick, The Cradle Will Rock, Uncle Vanya, Look Back in Anger, The Big Meal), Fun Home continues to reach down deep into a well of challenging subject matter and complicated emotions and emerges as a clear and powerful achievement in musical theater.
Alison Bechdel, cartoonist, wrote a graphic memoir of her childhood and the discovery that her father, like her, was gay. This revelation comes out shortly after she does and right before her father kills himself. The graphic memoir has morphed into this unusual but compelling musical told from the perspective of adult Alison (Beth Malone). The story goes back in time to revisit her memories of her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris), her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) and herself as a child (Small Alison is performed by Sydney Lucas) and in college (Middle Alison is performed by Alexandra Socha). We see the double life her father leads, her mother pretending she doesn't notice, and the children left to make sense of all of this. We watch as Alison goes away to college and begins to start her life--an honest and open one--only to have that life be interrupted by her father's death. As Alison takes us on this journey she is sketching and writing what will become her memoir.
Fun Home is historic as it is the rare musical
to depict lesbians without making them the butt of jokes or marginalize their
sexuality. But moreover, the musical balances this
unique story never told in musical theater with the universal story of adults coming to terms with their
childhoods, understanding their parents, sifting lies from truth, and
finding peace even if they cannot find answers. Anyone can relate to the material who has ever struggled with their identity, felt an outsider or misunderstood, or has wrestled with the challenge of unpacking memory. What sets the work apart is that we see these difficult adult questions expressed through these younger characters. And isn't that just like life. We may want to pretend that childhood is all play and learning, but often children bear the weight of the adult crises around them. There is no one in this story who does not have their share of pain and it is fascinating to see a musical give voice to this across all age groups.
And this incredible young cast makes this work. Sydney Lucas's performance is both deceptively natural and incredibly intelligent. You can see her "think" through the emotions and words of Ring of Keys, as a child would, as she is trying to understand what she is feeling. A fight between Small Alison and her father over wearing a dress to
party is a struggle over Alison being seen as she wants to be seen and
her father doing his utmost to cover that up for his own reasons. In protest to her father's tyranny, she then is mimicking machismo as she pretends to pick up a French damsel in distress in her fantasy number whilst calling her self Al (with the -ison begrudgingly mumbled afterwards). Everything about her character and her performance is organic and earnest. I've been talking about her since I first saw the workshop and called her Ring of Keys number a show-stopping baby lesbian torch song.
Alexandra Socha physically personifies Medium Alison as she stumbles upon her own sexuality as she might trip over a crack in the sidewalk. Suddenly, she is off-balance and her world is topsy-turvy but she catches herself and sees everything anew. That evolution of character and performance is a delight. Socha sings I'm Changing My Major to Joan after having sex with her new girlfriend (Roberta Colindrez) for the first time. The song is about
connecting, belonging, and being
truthful and it is the most darling of songs not only for its delicious excitement and tantalizing glee over new love but for Socha's tremendous physical embodiment of those emotions--nervous energy, explosive feelings, beaming joy, and unexpected calm.
And as moving as the songs are in music and lyrics, both Lucas* and Socha manage to elevate them with their vibrant performances.
Judy Kuhn has the unenviable task of playing the mother who is mostly detached and is sidelined by Alison's own memories. But when Kuhn finally lets loose in both song and narrative, she is cutting and makes the most of her time on stage.
Malone's character has probably changed the most from workshop to production. It's hard to integrate a narrator into this story. In the workshop she was staged off in her corner, in her art studio, with this story of her family happening nearby. Now Gold has found a way to physically move her into the family home. She has less to say and do but watching Malone stand on the sidelines she is still projecting a performance into the space. It is subtle but she is present. And this deserves mention. She is all these people--these memories--and her pushing away or being pulled in is palpable. This story comes from her but even she cannot control what she remembers. Gold has managed to find a way to have her step into the action and sing a song for all the Alisons--a lifetime of pain, sadness, and wanting all spilling out. Have your tissues at the ready for this one.
Despite this heady and emotional material, the musical provides as many moments of laughter as tears. With a distinct flavor of coming of age in the 1970's, there are wild Partridge Family style numbers (replete with glittering costumes and synchronized dancing) and perhaps the most adorable mock commercial for a funeral home you will ever see, performed by the Bechdel children. Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale play Alison's brothers and I may have snort laughed through their dance number with the can of Lemon Pledge (my mother obsessively made us use Lemon Pledge as children as well!). Because even if life is not what it seems and problems are happening around them they are children after all. So a bit of play reminds us of that too.
There are still a few things that don't work. The sequence of cartoon
vignettes that are meant to all pile up on the stage all at once still don't
quite work visually. Lines are drawn around the action but it is hard
to "see" the cartoon Gold is going for. But it is a small nit. I do miss some of Alison's drawings that were used in the workshop but I understand why they eliminated them. Gold has sharpened the piece over time. And made choices to get us from scene to scene more organically. It may be a memory play, and so time and space are malleable. Without an intermission he keeps the through-line taut and the emotions elevated. The story moves quickly and the inevitable conclusion that is coming for Alison bears down upon the audience as much as it does her. Gold never lets us off the hook either. I've been a fan of a number of his shows (Ok I admit it. I've seen everything he's directed in the last two years save The Realistic Joneses at Yale) and he again shows here that he works best when he's torn down a few walls and bent space for the benefit of story.
I'm not sure I have ever seen a musical before where each song is so clear in what it is trying to say and yet nothing about this story is simple. Nothing about these characters is straightforward. Each song has so much concentrated richness of story and emotion to be unpacked. And somehow the performances, direction, music, and lyrics guide the audience with confidence through this maze. I wish I had this kind of clarity over my own life.
This story may be shattering and draining at times, but it still feels life-affirming. It was hard to give a standing ovation with my lap covered in tissues and tears streaming down my face, but I did.
*Truth be told I saw Lucas squeal when she saw Sam Gold in the lobby of The Public before the show and give him a giant hug. His hotness, her cuteness, and their affection for each other was too much for me to handle. My ovaries then exploded.