Monday, 4 November 2013

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's FUN HOME at the Public Theatre

     In my last review, I commented on why LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE didn't work as a musical. Why does FUN HOME work so well?
      The musical is based on Alison Bechtel's autobiographical graphic novel. Here pictures and captions have been successfully turned into fully fleshed out characters. We see the quasi-autobiographical central character, Alison, at three stages of her life, played by three different actresses: Alison as a child wishing for a more ideal family than the one she lives with -- actually wishing she was a member of the Partridge Family; Alison as a college student discovering her sexuality and her father's troubled sexual orientation; and Alison as a forty-something artist who is still haunted by her past, particularly her relationship with her father. The creators of FUN HOME aren't the first to use this conceit. Edward Albee used it in THREE TALL WOMEN and in the 1950s Arthur Laurents tried it with less success in A CLEARING IN THE WOODS. In the less realistic context of musical theatre it works well, as it emphasizes the musical's idea that we never lose our past selves, particularly when we go home. Home in Alison's case was an environment controlled by her complex, controlling, deeply unhappy father Bruce (Michael Cerveris). He has two occupations; high school English teacher and funeral home director. He also has an obsession, their house, which he has renovated and redecorated. Controlling his environment is a substitute for controlling his own impulses.  Bruce wants to be a loving supportive father to his daughter and two sons, but he is too much a control freak for that. When young Alison shows him a drawing she did, he has to show her how it should have been drawn. Nonetheless, the children have rich fantasy lives, even turning the coffins into settings for funny television commercials. The one thing Bruce cannot control is his desire for young, sometimes underage, men. His wife, Helen (Judy Kuhn) has spent years suffering humiliation and abuse as Bruce's guilt is channeled into rage at her. Shortly after Alison brings home her first girlfriend, Bruce kills himself.
     This narrative is hardly THE LION KING or KINKY BOOTS. It's a serious play about loss and discovering sex and love. Tesori and Kron have found the music in it. Yes, one can hear the echoes of Sondheim, particularly in Bruce's jagged music. His final aria of rage and frustration reminds one of Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany," particularly as performed by Cerveris, a celebrated Sweeney. However influenced by Sondheim (what serious composer of musical theatre isn't?), Tesori has her own voice. There are delightful, playful numbers for the young Alison and her siblings and for teenage Alison after her first sexual experience. Helen's one big number shows that there is warmth under her protective chilliness. Equally important, Kron's lyrics never sound forced. They are articulate -- the characters are articulate, after all -- and witty, but the characters seem to have their own diction. John Clancy's orchestrations for a chamber ensemble have an appropriate elegiac mood.
      Sam Gold's has given the piece the right sense of visual style and pace. At first, as Alison begins her journey through her memories, the stage seems filled with objects randomly placed. Gradually the house becomes more coherent, more realistic as Alison organizes her memories into art. The staging balances realism and lyricism. The cast couldn't be better. Michael Cerveris is a master at playing troubled, slightly creepy characters. His Bruce can be a tyrant but one always sense the anguish underneath. If only he had the courage to see the possibility of a loving same-sex relationship, but this is the 1970s )Alison is in college during the Jimmy Carter years) and gay liberation hasn't yet hit this small Pennsylvania town. One wishes the wonderful Judy Kuhn had more to do, but when her big moments come toward the end of the show, she makes the most of them. The three Alisons (in chronological order Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha and Beth Malone) are all superb. Joel Perez plays the young men Bruce picks up. Roberta Colindrez seems a bit too old to be playing Alison's first college girlfriend, but she gives the role the right strength.
     Last season the most interesting musicals I saw were at the Public. This season FUN HOME will be hard to beat. Unmissable.
FUN HOME. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Public Theatre Newman Auditorium. November 3, 2013.

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