By: David Sheward
There have been numerous major musicals about gay men and their families-from La Cage Aux Folles to Falsettoes to the current Kinky Boots-but none with a lesbian at its center. That is until now. Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, puts the spotlight on a gay woman and her coming-out story. This moving and insightful tuner deserves to be seen beyond its current limited Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater.
The compassionate book by Lisa Kron zigzags between the present and the past. An adult Alison looks back at her dysfunctional family, while two other actors play her as a child and a college student. The main thread of the narrative is Alison’s attempt to understand her secretive father, Bruce, a closeted English teacher who indulges in furtive affairs with men and boys while married to the long-suffering Helen, a former actor burying her ambitions in community theater. Bruce also runs a funeral home-the play’s title refers to the family’s nickname for the establishment-and he has a passion for restoring old houses. Not long after Alison comes to terms with her sexuality and comes out to her parents, Bruce commits suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming truck. The narrator-Alison is wracked with guilt, believing her openness about being gay forced her dad to confront his true nature. which he would have rather kept in the shadows.
The score features warm, sweet music by Jeanine Tesori and clever, character-defining lyrics by Kron-who has previously addressed gay identity and family connections in such plays as Well, In the Wake, and her memoir solo show 2.5 Minute Ride. The songs range from riotously funny (a 1970s rock-disco takeoff in which young Alison and her brothers rehearse a TV commercial for the funeral home) to achingly tender (Alison as a little girl and a young woman joyously making self-discoveries), and sometimes are both simultaneously (a parody of The Partridge Family in which everyone ironically warbles, "Everything’s gonna be all right").
Sam Gold fluidly stages the action on David Zinn’s elegant revolving set with the grace and ease of memory, and the exquisite cast delivers all the heartbreaking layers of this conflicted clan. As the adult Alison, Beth Malone observes and lives the action with pain and depth. Alexandra Socha is delightfully awkward as the college-age Alison, charmingly fumbling as she makes her way to self-realization. As the child-stage version of the heroine, Sydney Lucas displays remarkable poise and insight for one so young.
The neglected mother Helen has only one solo number, but Judy Kuhn pours so much sorrow and subtext into it, the song becomes a three-minute play all by itself. The father’s inner struggle between conformism and personal happiness is etched on Michael Cerveris’s eloquent features and comes through in his masterful singing voice-a powerful performance in one of the best musicals, small-scale or Broadway-sized blockbuster, in recent years.
Oct. 21-Dec. 29. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 7pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 8pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $20-95. (212) 967-7555. www.publictheater.org
Photo: Joan Marcus