The best new play on Broadway at the moment is Lisa Kron’s book for the musical “Fun Home,” which opened Sunday at Circle in the Square in New York.
Kron’s achievement here recalls Marsha Norman’s breakthrough play in the late 1970s, “Getting Out,” which looks at a woman’s life before and after her parole, the character played by two different actresses. Kron ups that challenge by seeing her character Alison at three stages in life, played by three actresses. While Alison never goes to prison, she does grow up in a household that, at times, resembles one, especially for a girl who clearly identifies with being a lesbian early in childhood and has no use for the dresses and hair barrettes her father insists she wear. The book is based on Alison Bechdel’ s autobiographical graphic novel, “Fun Home,” the words are a child’s take on her father’s funeral home.
The very melodic score by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Kron conveys the Small Alison’s self-discovery with the song “Ring of Keys,” in which keys and other masculine accoutrements on a butch lesbian awaken the young girl’s sexuality. It’s an utterly joyful song, sung to perfection by the remarkable Sydney Lucas, and is foreshadowed earlier in the show (the plot is anything but chronological) with the equally jubilant “Changing My Major,” in which the Middle Alison consummates her attraction to women with coed Joan (Roberta Colindrez). Like Lucas, Emily Skeggs as the Middle Alison simply brims with anticipation for what life will bring her.
It doesn’t bring the adult Alison (Beth Malone) what she expects, and while her life isn’t tragic, it’s apparent that her career as a cartoonist has made her more of a cool observer of life than a real participant, at least with regard to love.
It’s a brilliant restaging, one that seats us just behind Alison’s wary adult eye as she remembers life with father. Although there’s no showbiz milieu depicted here, “Fun Home” is to fathers what “Gypsy” is to mothers, and Kron and Tesori have created a daddy Bruce (Michael Cerveris) who is every bit as vivid and controlling (and ultimately out of control) as Mama Rose. They’ve even given Bruce a “Rose’s Turn” in the eleven o’clock number “Edges of the World” that, like the “Gypsy” anthem, is created from motifs introduced earlier in the show.
Kron takes a big risk early in “Fun Home” by having Alison announce that as her life as a lesbian was beginning, her father’s life as a closeted gay man was ending, and that he would commit suicide. What a way to start a musical! That abrupt plunge, however, creates the suspense that drives “Fun Home” to its tragic conclusion as we watch Bruce flay for control over his meticulously renovated house, his stifled family, and his rampant promiscuity. Cerveris rightfully dominates the show, and the carefully measured performance of Judy Kuhn as his very aware wife only serves to compound the tragedy.
The mix of book and music cannot be faulted, and it’s not just the songs that linger. Tesori’s use of recitative is sparing and her underscoring for some of Kron’s dialogue is every bit as exquisite as the big arias.