BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The stark contrast between where musical theater has been and where it can — and arguably should — go in today’s world could not be more pronounced than in the difference between “Big Fish” on Broadway and “Fun Home” at the Public.
“Fun Home,” Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s brilliant new musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel is everything a contemporary musical should be. This emotionally complex coming of age story of a lesbian cartoonist growing up in a dysfunctional home in the 1960s and 1970s chronicles her strained relationship with her father, who seeks to suppress his own homosexuality even as Alison discovers hers. The themes of memory, struggling for resolution, and trying for forgiveness resonate through the story that follows Alison as a young girl, a college student, and an adult. It plays out in the adult Alison’s memory with rueful and affectionate hindsight. While the basic narrative may not be linear, the emotional through-line is overwhelming.
Tesori’s music is revelatory and sophisticated, balancing styles and structure in what is ultimately a magnificent, coherent whole using counterpoint and leitmotifs as characters in the piece. Her vision is enhanced by John Clancy’s sensitive orchestrations that illuminate character and situation in ways that can be devastating or hilarious.
Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics are insightful, layering the disparate versions of Alison to create the kind of fragmented abstractions that are the result of imperfect, emotionally charged memory. There isn’t a moment that doesn’t feel honest and fully developed. One of the most telling is when the family is in different parts of the house, with a septet creating an ineffable sense of a family’s fragmentation with vastly different, though simultaneous emotional experiences occurring under one roof.
The cast is nothing short of sublime. Michael Cerveris as Bruce, Alison’s conflicted father, gives his best and fullest performance since the revival of “Sweeney Todd.” Judy Kuhn is perfect as Helen, Bruce’s wife. Her character is focused and real, and her voice is, as always, superb. The three actresses playing Alison are all exceptional. Sydney Lucas as Small Alison, has a command of the stage and a voice that belie her years. She is more than equal to the challenges of the score. Alexandra Socha as Medium Alison is extraordinary as a woman coming to terms with her sexuality. Beth Malone as Alison manages to be both within and outside the story seamlessly, and her emotional journey is fully realized.
Much credit goes to Sam Gold for his insightful direction and to David Zinn for the scenic and costume design that balance the real and the ephemeral, just as Alison tries to do. The contemporary aesthetic and theatricality of “Fun Home” are as exhilarating as its story, making this a production not to be missed.
“Big Fish” is a big, sprawling musical with the earnest desire to dazzle audiences with lavish sets, large production numbers, and a talented and energetic cast. It is the tale of a fabulist father, Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who seeks to enliven his life and connect with his son through a series of tall tales. The darker subtext is that life can be pretty dull and gray, but the imagination can make even the most banal acts a wonderful adventure. The musical, based on a Tim Burton movie and a Daniel Wallace novel, is packed with visual riches and effects only possible with Broadway-sized capitalization.
Norbert Leo Butz gives it his all as Edward, easily moving through the different stages of life from teenager to dying man with verve and an amazing command of the stage. Kate Baldwin is lovely as his wife, Sandra, who stands between Edward and his more down to earth son, Will, played with great charm by Bobby Steggert.
Still, for all the razzle dazzle, the show is hollow at its heart. It feels like a retread of better musicals from “Pippin” to “Barnum.” Director and choreographer Susan Stroman has done her best to polish it up and provide plenty of wow moments, but the lackluster book by John August and the undistinguished, serviceable score by Andrew Lippa are mechanical. Standard musical set-ups — the meet-cute of the two leads, a marriage, father-son bonding, the son realizing his father was a good guy after all, and a deathbed — are off-the-shelf tropes.
The show is so crowded with incident that each of these conceits gets short shrift and there simply isn’t time to develop the characters. We never really understand Edward and why he is the way he is, so the audience is left estranged from him just as his son is. And the 11th hour revelations are too little and too late to compensate for the two-plus hours of spectacle that have gone before. It’s not that the standard musical format is completely dead — just go see “Matilda” — but as with the last Butz vehicle, “Catch Me If You Can,” eye-popping storytelling only works when the heart is engaged.
BIG FISH | Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $57-$151.75; ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929 | FUN HOME | The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 3 p.m. | $81.50-$91.50 at publictheater.org or 212-967-7555