Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home is not the first text one would expect to be adapted into a musical. The book is a self-consciously literary investigation into the author’s complicated relationship with her father, who in addition to teaching high school English and running the local funeral home was also an obsessive home renovator and closeted homosexual who committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck only a few months after his daughter announced her own coming out. It doesn’t exactly scream out for the standard song and dance treatment. But then, her scores for the Broadway hits Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek: The Musical notwithstanding, composer Jeanine Tesori’s most interesting work has always been in a darker vein: think Violet and Caroline, or Change. And, as the bassoon notes emanating from the pit during the orchestra’s pre-show tune-up announced, this is a deeply mournful work, one that understands that all stories of kinship—not least one as complicated as this—must be written in a minor key.
It helps, in this regard, that Tesori’s collaborator on the book and lyrics for Fun Home is the respected lesbian playwright Lisa Kron (The Well, 2.5 Minute Ride), no slouch in the family memoir department. Kron’s adaptation of Bechdel’s memoir is a marvel of intelligent condensation, one that focuses on key scenes to build character and an emotional through-line, while also respecting the atemporal, non-synchronous, retrospective and self-doubting chronology employed by Bechdel in the book’s visual panels and written captions. A compulsive diarist from a young age, Bechdel makes a point of emphasizing in the book the unreliability of her documentary record of her home life, itself a testament to what she was intuiting behind the apparently placid façade of her parents’ marriage—which is brought out nicely in the musical’s one razzmatazz number, with the entire cast joining in a parody of The Partridge Family. Splitting the character of Alison into three also helps with the book’s unique plot challenges, with Alison the jobbing 40-year old cartoonist (Beth Malone) a constant on-stage presence struggling to come up with the right captions as she looks back on her younger selves: a college-age Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs); and a 10-year old Small Alison (a remarkable Sydney Lucas). All three Alisons are superb, and each is given a breakout number that marks a pivotal point in Bechdel’s queer life: Small Alison sings of her fascination for a butch delivery woman and her “ring of keys”; Medium Alison sings about “changing her major to Joan,” her first girlfriend at college (played here by Roberta Colindrez); and grown-up Alison sings about the final car ride with her father, counting the “telegraph wires” as she struggles to find a way to broach all that remains unspoken between them.
The rest of the cast is equally compelling, with Tesori and Kron correctly recognizing that while Fun Home is focused primarily on the complicated relationship between Alison and her father Bruce, the family’s secrets affected everyone, including brothers Christian (Griffin Birney) and John (Noah Hinsdale) and mother Helen (the brilliant Judy Kuhn), who is given a heartbreaking lament of what she’s sacrificed to a marriage that was a lie in the song “Days and Days.” Joel Perez also stands out as Roy, the Bechdels’ babysitter and sometime yard-worker, who also happened to be one of Bruce’s teenage conquests. Finally, special mention must go to the amazing Michael Cerveris, who plays Bruce with just the right degree of narcissism and repressed rage, and who in the show’s penultimate number sings of how he lavishes onto his house all that he could not acknowledge in himself.
This is a beautiful and intelligent work of musical theatre translation. I’m so glad we got a chance to see it.