THEATER REVIEW: 12x Tony-Nominated Musical ‘Fun Home’

THEATER REVIEW: 12x Tony-Nominated Musical ‘Fun Home’

12x Tony-Nominated Musical Fun Home


“My father’s death was a queer business,” Alison Bechdel writes in her acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home. “Queer in every sense of that multi-valent word.”

While some have used the term “family tragicomic” to describe Bechdel’s book, it is much more than that: it’s both a stirring account of her relationship with her father, Bruce, and the story of her emotional growth. A man who juggled many lives at once, Bruce was a high school English teacher, the head of a family-run funeral home, a husband, a father to three children, and a closeted gay man who was notorious for having affairs with his male students (amongst others). His suicide not long after Alison came out of the closet not only left behind a slew of unanswered questions, but became a defining moment in his daughter’s journey of self-discovery. The resulting story is profound, heartbreaking, and revelatory. And the same is true of its new musical adaptation, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.

With music by the consistently terrific Jeanine Tesori (Violet; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Shrek the Musical; Caroline, or Change), Fun Home is without a doubt the most gripping musical of the year. It’s one of those rare new musicals that, thanks to its explored themes and masterful book, feels at once completely timeless and unlike anything that has come before it. No wonder that it received a staggering 12 nominations when the Tony Awards were announced on Tuesday (tying with An American in Paris for the most total nominations).

As Alison navigates her journey, she’s played by a trio of actresses, each depicting different ages of her life. Showing us Alison at 43, Beth Malone plays the cartoonist at the same age her father was when he died. Acting as a narrator of sorts, this Alison reflects upon her father’s suicide and her life leading up to it as a way of understanding their relationship and contemplating what his life and death meant to her. Malone, who originated this role in The Public Theater’s off-Broadway production of the show in 2013, sympathetically portrays Alison as a secure, self-aware adult who yearns to make sense of her father’s legacy in an attempt to bring balance to the memories of her unstable childhood.

As 19-year-old Alison, Emily Skeggs is a marvel. This Alison has just left her small-town and Victorian-era Pennsylvania home for college and is discovering what independence means and feels like. For the first time, she allows herself to reach beyond her comfort zones and figure out who she really is. Skeggs’ voice is gorgeous and her solo, “Changing My Major,” is a true comedic highlight in the otherwise largely serious production. In the song, Alison has just had her first lesbian sexual encounter and is reveling in the afterglow. She sings affectionately about her lover Joan and the world that she has opened up for her. Skeggs’ performance brims with youthful excitement but feels like it is delivered by a seasoned veteran. In fact, you may be shocked to learn that she is only now making her Broadway debut.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Sydney Lucas, who plays Alison at 9-years-old. Lucas’ remarkable command of her character makes it immediately clear why the role made her the youngest Obie Awards recipient in history, and garnered her Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League nominations. Now, she’s also up for a Tony and will face off in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role category against co-stars Skeggs and Judy Kuhn (who plays Alison’s mother, Helen). While I believe that the three Alisons should have been given a shared Tony (à la Billy Elliott) to recognize each of their individual brilliant performances, it’s Lucas who shouldn’t be leaving Radio City Music Hall empty-handed if only one will win.

Lucas’ Alison rejects wearing the pretty dresses her father has chosen for her and coyly asks for crew cuts. But, above all, she longs for her father’s love and approval, so she delays pushing for what she wants to accommodate what he thinks is best for her (this results in a heartbreaking scene in which she starts to express herself artistically and Bruce won’t rest until she corrects her technique). Lucas’ acting is nothing short of extraordinary, in particular when she sees a butch mail delivery woman and for the first time feels a sense of connection and that she’s not alone in the world. In the scene’s accompanying song, “Ring of Keys,” this revelation is written all over Lucas’ face and its game-changing impact is pronounced with every syllable of her unforgettable performance. Lucas isn’t just one of the best child actors on Broadway today, she’s one of the best actors period.

But it’s not only the myriad of Alisons who make Fun Home so exhilarating. Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris’ layered depiction of Bruce illustrates him as a man desperate to use the appearance of perfection as a mask for his own pain. This creates a haunting portrait of someone too ashamed of himself to ever fully be able to love anyone else. And as Helen, Kuhn expertly plays a woman conflicted between the life she knows and the truth that could make it all come undone. Her nuanced performance will make you want to hug and comfort her and also shake her and tell her to run.

Rounding out the cast are Roberta Colindrez as Joan, who, with her effortless charisma, excellently counterbalances Skeggs’ naivety, and Joel Perez, who terrifically plays an assortment of Bruce’s secret lovers. As Alison’s brothers when they’re children, Zell Steele Morrow and Oscar Williams are nothing short of exceptional when they join their sister for “Come to the Fun Home,” an adorable fake commercial the trio makes for their family business. It involves using a casket as a prop in ways that only kids could do without it being horribly creepy and inappropriate. This is the type of musical number that will have the entire audience smiling and provides a nostalgic yearning for a child’s boundless imagination to anyone watching.

With such personal source material, Fun Home impeccably retains its sense of intimacy in the Circle in the Square Theatre. Sam Gold’s intelligent direction allows theatergoers to feel like they’re in the Bechdels’ living room with them, almost watching the events unfold before their eyes directly alongside Malone’s Alison as she remembers them. No matter where you’re seated, the actors play to all sides of the theater, allowing the show to keep some of that Off-Broadway smaller scale feel that is rarely a part of big Broadway musicals.

Of all the shows to choose from this Broadway season, Fun Home will surely be the one to stick with you the longest after the curtain falls. It’s as important as it is beautiful, with a powerful story told by enormously talented actors. Whether you’ve read Bechdel’s book or not, this musical will not just tug at your heartstrings, it’ll stay with you as one of the freshest and most exciting contemporary new shows of this century. When the Tony’s come around in June, don’t be surprised when all the other nominees are disappointed in the wake of its success.

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Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.