Thursday, April 30, 2015

Margin Notes: Fun Home (a revisit)

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris as Small Alison and Bruce.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Fun Home

Seen on: Wednesday, 4/29/15.
My grade: A. Profoundly moving, excellent ensemble work.

Plot and Background
Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home follows a grown Alison as she backtracks through her memories, writing her memoir, trying to sort through the contradictory memories and emotions attached to her closeted and emotionally abusive father. She struggles with the fact that a few months after she came out as gay in college, her father was hit by a truck - did he kill himself because of her? Because of him? Was it an accident? Alison's memories are aided by Small Alison, the child who knew she was different but not what it meant, and by Middle Alison, the college student, exploding into her sexuality like an epiphany. This show was developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, the Sundance Theatre Lab, and The Public Theater's Public Lab, before its full production at The Public in 2013-2014. It was nominated for numerous awards, and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That production has transferred to Broadway with its cast mostly intact (Emily Skeggs has taken over for Middle Alison, and the two brothers were also recast).

What I Knew Beforehand
I've broken my self-imposed rule to not review shows I've already seen, as I like the idea of doing this more as a first impressions from first exposure (which is why I haven't reviewed, say, Hand to God or The Audience). But I never reviewed Fun Home when I saw it at The Public and I should have, and the staging and set are different enough, that I'm allowing myself to defy myself. So what did I know beforehand? I saw the show at The Public (Emily Skeggs had already taken over for Socha by that time), I've listened to the cast album numerous times, and I've read Alison Bechdel's book on which it is based.


Play: What that does mean is that I'm going to focus the majority of my thoughts on cast and design. That being said, I think this is a remarkable show based on a remarkable book (that you should read. have you read it? go read it). The fluidity of it, narratively non-linear and yet absolutely emotionally so, following grown Alison through her memories of childhood, of coming out, of trying, over and over, to understand her father and why he did what he did. The fact that the lyrics are written by a playwright and not a lyricist lend them a more naturalized rhythm, as of dialogue elevated, even if it does result in some predictable or forced rhymes. And perhaps the structure could be stronger, I'm not sure (the elimination of "Al for Short" was a good cut, for the record). But it still feels like an important show, it's still so moving, and so unusual to see such a female-dominated story, to see a young girl sing a love song to a delivery woman. I'm so grateful this show got a Broadway transfer.

Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs as Alison and Middle Alison.
Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Cast: The cast achieved a sense of naturalism rare for musicals. You very much felt that these were real people: imperfect, struggling, desperate, hopeful, surviving (or not). The fact that they sang was just part of the texture, not even a departure from the moment. When I saw the show at The Public, I was pretty far back and missed some of the subtleties of performance, which I was really able to see this time around - Sydney Lucas as Small Alison, simultaneously terrified of her father's mercurial moods and in love with every moment he pays attention to her; Beth Malone as Alison, cringing in embarrassment at Middle Alison's awkwardness; Judy Kuhn as Helen, so weary, so suppressed, but still standing. I found myself crying, on and off, the entire show, and it was due to these performers - the beauty of self-knowledge and discovery in songs like "Ring of Keys" or "Changing My Major," the ache of mysteries unsolvable at the heart of Alison's dilemma in "Maps" or "Telephone Wire." The lost opportunities melting into "Days and Days" for Helen. Is it possible to root for the entire cast come Tony time? Because that's what I'm doing right now.

Design: Generally I prefer non-proscenium spaces like Circle in the Square because they force the director to find a more interesting way to tell the story - they require more flexibility of stage pictures, more dynamic movement in general. Sam Gold didn't seem to me entirely comfortable with converting his proscenium staging from The Public to the arena space here - often finding excuses to turn his actors in circles to give everyone a view. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it felt forced - but it was always the same move, which bothered me a bit. The most effective use of this device, however, was in Alison's final drive with her father on the raised platform - a car that cannot go forward, that can only spin in circles of conversations that were never had. I did find myself missing some of the larger set pieces from David Zinn's set as it was at The Public - we were missing, perhaps, a bit of the sense of the overwhelming stuff in the house that dominated everyone's lives because of Bruce's passion. Instead, to allow for sightlines and the flexibility of the smaller space, we had only a few smaller pieces, elevated in and out of the space. However, this perhaps achieved a new and better effect later in the show - when Middle Alison brings Joan home, the chandeliers lower, all the furniture appears, and it is as overwhelming for us as it is for Joan - because neither of us has seen it before. So maybe I should take back my complaint. Ben Stanton's lighting design was excellent, utilizing the contrast of light and shadow well, and bringing in lit square frames, the frames of Alison's cartoon, more and more overlapping squares as the memories overwhelm her.


Running: Now playing at Circle in the Square Theatre (transfer from its run at The Public) - Opened: April 19, 2015.
Category: musical
Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.

Creative Team

Book & Lyrics: Lisa Kron
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Sam Gold
Designers:  Danny Mefford (Choreography), David Zinn (Set & Costume), Ben Stanton (Lighting), Kai Harada (Sound), John Clancy (Orchestrations).
Cast: Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, Roberta Colindrez, Zell Steele Morrow, Joel Perez, Oscar Williams, Lauren Patten, Gabrielle Pizzolo, Marrick Smith, Jim Stanek, Nicole Van Giesen.

Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, and Emily Skeggs as Small Alison, Alison,
and Middle Alison. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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