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Review: Fun Home and its Lesbian Characters Soar Exquisitely onto Broadway

Review: Fun Home and its Lesbian Characters Soar Exquisitely onto Broadway

Review: Fun Home and its Lesbian Characters Soar Exquisitely onto Broadway

If you make it to only one show this season, let it be Fun Home.

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There is no simple way to describe what Fun Home brings to Broadway. There’s a lesbian protagonist, several queer characters, an extraordinary score, and it isn’t some dream that will disappear when we wake up. Here is cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s life story - adapted from her New York Times bestselling graphic memoir - on one of the most prominent stages in the world, touching the hearts of mainstream audiences. For some, that’s enough to get a bit teary-eyed. And if you’re not tearing up before the show even starts, don’t overestimate yourself. You’ll certainly be needing tissues by the curtain call.

Fun Home is a rare, nearly impossible kind of show that isn’t geared to any specific age or experience. Everyone is welcome here, and everyone will get something special out of what they see. Jeanine Tesori’s music and Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics effortlessly weave together to create 100 minutes of a genuine human experience, haunted by and in every way honoring the real-life ghosts of Alison Bechdel’s past. The actors, most of whom came from the Off-Broadway run at The Public, disappear into their respective roles with unmatched raw intensity. Staged in the round, the show invites the audience into the Bechdel home and is respectful of playing to every seat in the house. We are intimately drawn into the lives unfolding before us and may quickly find we have more in common then we ever imagined. 

Though played by three actors, Alison Bechdel moves as one character around the stage. At any age, Sydney Lucas’ performance as Small Alison would be impressive. At 11, it’s almost unfathomable that this person who’s barely more than a decade old somehow masters this much maturity, empathy, and emotional presence. There are few moments in theater like the song “Ring of Keys,” where Small Alison encounters an 'old-school butch' delivery woman at a diner and for the first time feels connected to this stranger in a way she didn’t know was possible. Lucas’ fierce energy, sparkling eyes, and clear, optimistic tone captures that actual life-changing moment so many of us confused queer kiddos had when realizing we weren’t as alone as we thought. We never dreamed we’d see that moment on stage and musicalized so beautifully yet here we are, much like Small Alison, hearing our hearts saying ‘hi’ to something we experienced long ago and may even still feel today. 

This is a triumphant moment for Small Alison, but it’s still a secret she must keep within herself. Emily Skeggs' Medium Alison, now a somewhat well-adjusted college freshman, is clearly still weighed down by the identity she’s locked deep within. However, the identity has started bursting out of its cage and we watch (again, with powerful familiarity for some) as she struggles to find a way into the life it’s obvious she’s aching to have. Skeggs is so clicked in to the triumph, relief, and fear of proclaiming “I’m a lesbian!” for the first time that it’s almost easy to forget this isn’t her actual dorm room we’ve entered by accident. We forget even further during the epic number “Changing My Major,” in which a skivvies-clad Alison proclaims her love for her friend Joan, with whom she has just had her first sexual experience. And while Joan (Roberta Colindrez) is totally crush-worthy, we’d easily change our major to Skeggs' endlessly charming, instantly lovable Alison, who is so bursting with life and energy it’s as though this is the first time her words have ever been spoken. We’re not in a Broadway show being performed eight times a week as some part of a touristy theatrical machine, we’re hanging out with Alison Bechdel, and it’s exactly where we want to be. 

Beth Malone anchors these women as the older Alison Bechdel we know today, disappearing into scenes and reappearing with such subtlety and realism we often have to remind ourselves she isn’t the real Alison herself. But she is the conductor of this group, leading them along with punchy yet wounded wit and grace. However, when the spotlight is on her it becomes that much more gut-wrenching to realize that what has unfolded before us as a play is this character's - as well as the real Alison's - actual reality.

 

 

How devastating and powerful it is to watch adult Alison share a moment she never got with her father. How devastating it is to remember that the souls on this stage are real ones. When we get to experience those final scenes with Malone’s Alison, it is clear that every moment of the reality of the situation is living within her.  When these three women unite at the end of the show, the collective fulfillment, love, and loss is one of the most effective moments on a Broadway stage in a long time. 

In addition to all the Alison awesomeness, Broadway mega-veterans Judy Kuhn and Michael Cerveris bring the kind of lingering, haunting performances that prove the worthiness of their successful careers. Though Cerveris’ explosive performance as Alison’s controlling, closeted gay father dominates most of the time (but only as much as it should), Kuhn’s quiet, slow-simmering mother leaves the audience gripped and gutted when her moment comes. Her chilling song “Days and Days” is truly one of the most devastating summations of a character’s life. Fun Home’s set is respectfully stripped - though what is used has been designed with a most elegant thoughtfulness - to allow a direct line from the audience into the heart of the show. Some of the most powerful moments occur when all set pieces have been removed from the stage and the characters simply engage each other face-to-face. In a city where elaborate sets and flashy tricks are often necessities to grab the audience’s attention, Fun Home is a changing the game by going back to basics. This is storytelling at its finest.

The only issue with Fun Home - and I use the term ‘issue’ loosely - is that it is currently confined to one Broadway stage. Here is a musical that needs to be experienced by as many people as possible from as many different walks of life, and especially who may not normally be exposed to this type of material (though to catalogue Fun Home as a ‘type’ of material, as though really anything is comparable, is unfair). The show already burst out of its NYC borders when the cast traveled to South Carolina to perform at the College of Charleseton after the school had its budget cut as a punishment for assigning novels with LGBT themes, Fun Home included. After experiencing the musical in full and spending a moment with the cast, it’s clear this wasn’t a publicity stunt but a true act of love from everyone involved. Hopefully, that love will emanate from the Circle in the Square Theatre eight times a week and move a little closer into the hearts of those who don’t get to sit in the theater and watch these important moments in person, whether that’s something they want or something that scares and challenges them. And what is the challenge here? Fun Home focuses on queer characters (thankfully, importantly, and beautifully in a world that seems set on making love so painfully complicated), but it is not their sexual identities that define them; it’s their relationships with each other. It may truly frighten some to find themselves relating to and feeling for these characters who happen to be LGBT, and that’s where the true change begins. There’s no grand statement being made about equal rights and universal acceptance - there is only humanity. 

There is beauty and torture in Fun Home. There is a lingering horror at everything that Alison discovered growing up, and an unwillingness to accept the truth of her father’s life. Yet through all the pain, there is a stunning love letter to not just Alison’s family, but many universal family dynamics as well. Alison has been given the chance to talk to her father one last time and this opportunity has created something electric and truly alive. The heart of Broadway is now beating in the Circle in the Square Theatre. Welcome, Fun Home. We’ve been waiting for you. 

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Preston Max Allen