Sunday, 8 October 2017

FUN HOME at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater

     If HAMILTON offers an upbeat view of American history, a celebration of ego, drive and talent that is typical of the American musical, FUN HOME, though a musical, is more in the tradition of classical American domestic drama, a probing view at the tensions and unhappiness that can roil under the myth of the American family. What this musical shares with many, if not most musicals, is a celebration of queerness.
     There's a brilliant moment in FUN HOME, botched a bit in Gary Griffin's production at Victory Gardens, when the ten year old Alison is watching a television show like The Partridge Family, one of those 70s sitcoms about a happy American family that also performs together. Bruce, Alison's deeply unhappy father turns off the set and tells Alison to read a book. Suddenly we're transported into Alison's imagination where her own family becomes one of those happy, sappy, singing and dancing families.  Of course, her family is anything but a Partridge-type clan. Alison is a lesbian in embryo, her father a closeted homosexual, her mother deeply frustrated woman. When college-age Alison comes home with her girlfriend, her mother tells her, "Don't come back," not as a rejection but because she wants her daughter to be able to escape this oppressive household. There are things Alison cannot escape, even at 43 years old as she looks back on her family, particularly her guilt at her father's suicide, which came shortly after she came out to her parents. Did her coming out lead to his death? It's a puzzle that can never be solved because Bruce is himself a puzzle. The musical dramatizes the process of her coming to terms with her father and, in the process, coming to terms with herself.
     FUN HOME is not a typical musical, but it's a brilliant one. Jeanine Tesori's score, very much in the Sondheim mode, is full of clever lyrics, very much in character, and lovely melodies. Some of the songs are gems, particularly "Ring of Keys" in which ten year old Alison realizes her attraction to very butch lesbian delivering packages to a coffee shop, and her mother's cry of anguish, "Days and Days." Tesori and book writer Lisa Kron pack a lot into an intense 100 minutes. FUN HOME is, with HAMILTON, a towering 21st century musical, not likely to be topped soon.
     The Victory Gardens Theater production is worthy of the show. I was particularly impressed with Rob Lindley's Bruce, the unhappy, obsessive, sometimes nasty father. Bruce is an oddity in a musical, a completely three-dimensional character. Lindley played the nastiness more overtly than Michael Cerveris in New York, but it was good to see all the contradictions in the character. Everyone else was convincing and committed. Not all the singing was on a par with the New York production, but director Gary Griffin got rich performances out of everyone.
     I had been talking to a producer the day before about the problem of getting young audiences to the theater. It was particularly joyful to see Victory Gardens packed with young people last night. They were attentive to every line and lyric, were totally with the show from beginning to end.

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