10/24/2013 05:28 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: The Lisa Kron-Jeanine Tesori "Fun Home" May Not Be Non-Stop Fun But It Damn Well Hits Home

Musicals have dealt with incarceration (Kiss of the Spider Woman), hanging (Parade) and murder (Sweeney Todd, Bonnie and Clyde, Chicago, Sunset Boulevard, Murder Ballad, Murder for Two) but only now does it get around to suicide, where the bold and wrenching Lisa Kron-Jeanine Tesori musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home is playing--if "playing" is the appropriate word--at the Public.
Oh, wait. There's always Les Miserables, but that suicide is welcome.
Bechdel's quest in her illustrated work is hardly a simple one and infinitely more disturbing. Introducing her cartoonist 43-year-old self (Beth Malone), she's compelled to look back at her Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) and college-age Medium Alison (Alexandra Socha) as, at all three ages, she tries to understand--and is never quite able to--her deeply troubled father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris).
In order to get a handle on aspects of her own lesbian identity, she's unrelievedly attempting to figure out a man who besides teaching English and running a funeral home (Fun Home, get it? Get the irony?) has led a secret homosexual life.
It's a dreary Beech Creek, Pennsylvania existence that his wife Helen (Judy Kuhn) barely tolerates for the sake of their children, Alison, John (Noah Hinsdale) and Christian (Griffin Birney). The several young men whom Bruce comes on to--Helen reports some of them are under-age--are all represented by strapping Joel Perez.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in Alison's determined but unsatisfied grappling with her father-daughter relationship occurs when--Bruce having walked in front of a truck three months after Alison has come out to both parents--she wonders whether the revelation was the cause of his irrevocable act or whether it wasn't.
The latter possibility strikes her as worse than the former, and, if it's the most telling confidence in her retrospective wandering, it's only one of many passages in a musical that marks Bechdel, Kron and Tesori as undauntingly adventurous. This isn't to say the three of them haven't proved to retreat from nothing in their separate previous work--much of Tesori's (Caroline, or Change) and Kron's (Well, 2.5 Minute Ride) having been carried on under the Public's auspices.
So kudos to all concerned--and that includes inventive, ubiquitous director Sam Gold. (Didn't he direct something that opened last week? Isn't he directing something that opens next week? Or does it just seem that way?) They've all done commendable work, as has designer-costumer David Zinn, who puts much of the piano-owning Bechdel household (described in the script as museum-like) on a turntable. That way, Gold can keep the action flowing back and forth in time and back and forth from the Bechdels to Alison's Oberlin campus. Incidentally, Oberlin is where she finally labels the longings she's had since childhood as undeniably gay.
On that subject--which few would say is easy to express in song--Kron's lyrics and Tesori's music combine most astoundingly in "Ring of Keys," which is delivered by tiny but steely-voiced Lucas. Small Alison declares that on seeing at her young age a mannish women enter a room, she recognizes something in the newcomer that resonates with her own child's inclinations. This example of sophisticated tunesmithing is definitely one for the books.
Kron and Tesori have a couple of other remarkable songs to add to that standout. When Medium Alison returns home after finding out about her father's complicated past--including a few run-ins with the police--she confronts Helen. What Helen confides musically is cruelly stark, and Kuhn, last seen as Fosca in the Passion revival, carries a good dose of that intensity over to the outcry.
Not all the musical material, however, is on this level--although John Clancy's arrangements, featuring an especially touching repeated cello riff--is well conducted by Chris Fenwick.
As musicals have taken on serious subjects over the last few decades--led by Stephen Sondheim, whose influence hovers here--composers have increasingly jettisoned the 32-bar song in favor of extended recitative. There's a fair amount of that quasi-operatic offering in Fun Home. Rather than being categorized as songs, the interludes could be called musical segments--second number "Welcome to Our House" is one. For them, contrapuntal melodies are meshed so that little of what any one person declares is understood.
On the other hand, when Tesori and Kron go for the discrete song, they sometimes fall short there as well. Yes, they're genuinely funny when Medium Alison has had her first sexual encounter with Oberlin gal pal Joan (Roberta Colindrez) and chatters in "Changing My Major" about wanting more of the same hay-rolling encounters.
But no, the pair don't get far with a funeral home commercial the Bechdel kids tootle as "Come to the Fun House" or with the ironic mock-rock ditty called "Raincoat of Love" that the entire cast fumbles through in a dream sequence. Much of that fumbling, by the way, is done whenever the members of the ensemble--clearly chosen for their voices and not for their dancing prowess--have to execute Danny Mefford's choreography.
The Public brass love Mefford. They must, for that's where he's worked on Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, Good Person of Szechwan, February House and Love's Labour's Lost. Maybe he has a reputation for doing well with actors who move but can't dance. Nevertheless, folks, give the guy a break. Not every musical needs dance to qualify, and better no routines than half-heartedly executed ones.
Anyone possessing the least amount of show-biz savvy will intuit quickly that Fun Home will be drawing to a close when all three Alisons sing together. When at last they do after 100 intermissionless minutes have gone by, they raise the strong pipes with which they've been blessed in a trio called "Flying Away." Thus, they put paid to a musical that may have come as far from the sunny Jerome Kern-Guy Bolton-P. G. Wodehouse Princess Theatre entertainments of the early 20th century as it's likely musical comedy--yes, comedy; there are many laughs here--can travel.
Theater trivia: During a scene that takes place in 1976, the children talk about the New York trip they're on with Bruce. They've just seen A Chorus Line. It's a nice piece of inside joke to have this passage unfold on the very stage where A Chorus Line started. As a matter of wonderful fact, Alison, John and Christian have placed their sleeping bags exactly where that famed chorus line once stood.

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