Circle In The Square Theatre
10 April 2015
For a while now, you have been reeling. Revelation after revelation has widened your understanding of the situation, your knowledge of the painful, achingly real relationships in this family. You have seen the little children playing in and around the coffin, finding, as little children do, any place to play that they can. You have seen the oddly dictatorial behaviour of the troubled father and, alarmingly, seen and heard what makes him smile the broadest. You have watched the spirit be crushed in a small jubilant girl only to see it rise again thanks to the uncompromising love of another girl. You have seen the coming out, the reaction, the awkward family visit of girlfriend and girlfriend. You have a very clear understanding of what the daughter thinks and of what the daughter thinks the father thinks. You know that he will die, badly, soon because you have been told that from the start.
But what you don’t know, really, is what the mother thinks and feels. She has been not the focus of attention really – the emphasis has been on Father and Daughter. But she has been there, has lived in the same house, experienced the same set of developments, kept the same secrets, probably suffered the most pain. Then she sings an extraordinarily beautiful song, one that sees her open up about her feelings, her pain, her loneliness.
From that point on, the emotional rollercoaster settles, pieces fall into place, and the passion and pace accelerates towards the heart-breaking finale. This is Fun Home, a new musical based upon Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical comic-book memoir, with a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori. In a quirk of time and fate, I caught this production exactly a year to the day that I saw the Broadway revival of another Tesori musical, Violet, and, just as I had been affected then, Tesori’s score for Fun Home reaches unerringly, relentlessly, into your heart and squeezes. Hard.
There is something very particular about the music Tesori writes. Apart from great tunes and soaring melodies, she provides interesting, complicated harmonies and textures and, perhaps most importantly of all, the music she writes for particular characters seems like it could only ever be sung by those characters in that particular situation. Doubtless people could cover the songs in cabaret or albums, but they work their very best, have their greatest resonance, as part of the texture of a performance. Tesori has that very rare ability to write music which both defines and is created by dramatic characters in her musicals.
So, when Judy Kuhn sings Days and Days, you don’t just get from the music the tune and the magic of the acutely painful delivery; you also share a common understanding with the character and, through her singing of her experiences and difficulties, feel something of her life, her measure of her existence. Tesori’s music unlocks emotions and thoughts you never even knew you had. (I think the song is called Days and Days; one of the frustrating things about Broadway Playbills is that they do not always include a list of songs.)
It is this universality which is the key to the success of Fun Home. Fundamentally, it is about family and the undisclosed natures and secrets of those who are our family. Children discovering themselves and their own truths and coming to realise that their parents are human and make mistakes, don’t necessarily tell the whole truth all the time, and may, in fact, not be quite who they thought they were. Parents coming to realise that children have different needs and demands than just food and clothing and education; that actions have consequences; that love means many things.
Because it concerns a mature lesbian reminiscing about her life as a way of coming to terms with certain aspects of her life, it would be easy to see Fun Home as a treatise about homosexuality. This notion is perhaps reinforced by the fact that not only is the narrator character, Alison, a lesbian, but her father, Bruce, is sexually attracted to men and boys. He is, at best, a closeted bisexual, at worst, a paedophile. But this is too restrictive an interpretation of the work and, frankly, does not give it is true value. Just as Violet, while a story about a particular disfigured girl, was a universal tale about Beauty so is Fun Home a universal tale about Family and Home Truths. Just as Violet is not an examination of the life of small town America, nor is Fun Home an examination of homosexuality. And just as Violet is a powerful musical with a central female character, so too is Fun Home.
Cleverly, the central character here, Alison, is portrayed by three actresses who represent different stages of Alison’s life: the grown up Alison; the Alison at University discovering her sexuality; and, the willing, happy child Alison. Grown up Alison mainly observes the action, but occasionally comments and, as the climax approaches, she crosses timelines for an effective scene with her father. The bulk of the work is shared between Middle and Young Alison, both of whom have difficult relationships with their father. Young Alison finds her father’s strict, almost tyrannical demands, hard to cope with; Middle Alison wants her father’s assistance with and understanding of her sexuality. Both want different things from their father and their father has difficulty with both for different reasons.
Bruce is married but resentful of the marriage. He does not know how to be a parent and struggles with trying. He keeps pursuing his same-sex attraction, notably in one key scene, skin-crawlingly effective, where he seduces a young man hired for yard work while his wife plays the piano in another room. He does not know how to accept his daughter’s sexuality and resents it because she has a freedom denied him. How Bruce and his secrets affect Alison is the key issue explored in Kron’s narrative.
Death is a constant presence in the work. Not only Bruce’s death, which is foreshadowed as the piece begins and becomes the extraordinary climax of the drama, but death in the intangible sense – Bruce runs the funeral parlour in the town where the family lives so their lives constantly reflect the death of others and the rituals associated with death. In one of the show’s best scenes, Alison and her siblings can be seen jubilantly cavorting in and around a coffin: Come to the Fun Home.
Despite its non-linear narrative, Fun Home is directed with insightful clarity by Sam Gold; one is never lost in the fog of time. There is almost a language in movement (Danny Mefford) which assists in establishing the time-line and in communicating the hazy and unreliable nature of memory, of supposition. David Zinn’s costumes and ceaselessly inventive set design provide the cast with much to work with: the sense of Bruce’s frustratingly precise, pedantic and unreasonable household demands is palpable: the furniture and floorboards seem polished and perfect in a way that is both warm and cold, depending who is in the room.
Chris Fenwick’s musical direction is assured and throbs with life. The music is hauntingly beautiful in parts, frenetic and silly in others and Fenwick’s lead is always followed and always spot on. The compact virtuoso orchestra provide the surest footing for Tesori’s intriguing and involving score. It is very easy to simply allow yourself to float away in the beauty of the music – part of the point when, as here, the music represents memory, at least in part.
Most of the performances are stellar. Judy Kuhn is sublime as Helen, the mother who has endured much and bottled most of it up. Across the course of the performance, pain and angst is etched deeper and deeper into her face, her posture, her near hollow eyes, as if it were being tattooed all over her. She sings perfectly, absorbed in every splendidly judged musical phrase. Her Days and Days will fragment your soul.
Michael Cerveris, like Kuhn, a Broadway stalwart, is in superb form as the troubled and troubling soul that is Bruce. Although by no means a sympathetic character, Cerveris imbues Bruce with such painstakingly detailed truth that it becomes difficult not to feel for him when the stark lights of the approaching highway Truck take him permanently out of Alison’s life. His scenes of seduction are sickeningly authentic, as is the sense of unrestrained authoritarianism he brings to the discipline of his children and the demands he makes upon his long suffering wife – but Cerveris also shows the lighter side of Bruce, and there are some genuine moments of happiness. Telephone Wire is particularly memorable.
Cerveris is in fine voice throughout, but his impassioned anthem, Edges of the World, is quite thrilling.
Still, both Kuhn and Cerveris take a back seat to the real star of the production: Sydney Lucas, who plays Small Alison. Younger than 12, Lucas is extraordinarily mature as a performer. It is her version of Alison which suffers the most at the hands of her father, but it is also her character who loves him the most unconditionally and who wants to please him. There are many adult actors who would not be able to pull of the nuance that Lucas achieves here, seemingly without effort.
A pure delight, Lucas tugs at every heartstring (even ones you never knew you had) and tickles every funnybone. She sings spectacularly well, brassy and bold where required, thoughtful and joyous in other places. Her voice contains colours and a timbre which belies her tender years. Her contribution to the final song, Flying Away, is simply wonderful.
Because Lucas sets the bar so high, the achievements of the other versions of Alison appear to be less satisfactory than they actually are. You just want to see and hear more from Young Alison. Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs) suffers the most even though Older Alison (Beth Malone) actually has less to say or do. But the truth is that both are nearly as pitch-perfect as Lucas in conveying the sense of the dichotomy in Alison’s relationship with her father; they just do it in very different ways, which reflect the maturity level of Alison at each stage.
Skeggs is subdued and academic, but she really lets the joy shine through when she discovers her sexuality and her ebullient song, Changing My Major, is splendid in every way. She also manages to reflect both of her other selves rather well, a thought that really only becomes clear once the clapping has subsided and you are out of the theatre thinking about what you have witnessed. She also provides excellent support for Kuhn in the key scene where Helen tells her daughter some truths about her father.
Malone, in full reflective adult mode Alison, also channels both her younger selves. Curiously, even though the physicality of their performances are so different, it is Lucas’ version which seems closest to the one Malone embodies. Watchful, willing and wondering, Malone contributes much by doing little and her final sequences are particularly good.
Fun Home is a remarkably intricate and universal piece of musical theatre. Blessed with skilled direction and a great cast, it resonates brightly, the memory of childhood and that feeling everyone has that they never knew their parents well enough making that resonance stronger. The score is terrific, a really accomplished piece of theatre writing.
Nothing in life is complete, truly. But Fun Home seems more incomplete than it need be. It seems folly not to know more about Helen and Alison’s relationship than is divulged here. Or to know what Alison’s siblings thought about their father, about Alison, about their mother and her experiences.
Sometimes, less is less, not more.