A rueful graphic novelist recalls her awkward first lesbian encounter. Distraught parents argue at the top of their lungs. A suicidal, closeted funeral director hits on underage boys. Not exactly the typical stuff of hit Broadway shows, that’s for sure.
Welcome to “Fun Home,” the bittersweet musical based on Alison Bechdel’s popular graphic memoir examining an agonizing childhood in a small town in central Pennsylvania.
After a glorious run at the Public Theater in 2013, where critics and audiences alike gushed over the show’s emotional heft and delicacy, producers couldn’t resist a transfer to the Great White Way. Never mind that similar edgy endeavors (witness “The Scottsboro Boys,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) that tried to make the leap flopped. Tourists, who make up a sizable portion of the Broadway audience, stayed away in droves.
Will this unorthodox tuner, with inventive book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and stirring score by Jeanine Tesori, but no big recognizable stars, land firmly on its feet?
We can only hope. For the refreshingly candid endeavor is even more affecting in its Broadway incarnation, in part owing to new dynamic staging in the round at the intimate Circle in the Square Theatre. Sam Gold’s masterful direction brings out the heartache and yearning to its fullest.
Like the graphic novel, “Fun Home” is served up in fragments, echoing the swirling, nonlinear nature of memory. The narrative ricochets from one disparate scene to the next: a 43-year-old Alison (Beth Malone) at her drawing table; a young Alison (Sydney Lucas, who won the Obie Award for the role) and her brothers spruce up their museum-like home meticulously restored by their moody father (Michael Cerveris); a young-adult Alison (Emily Skeggs) navigates a rocky freshman year at Oberlin; Alison’s mother (Judy Kuhn) plays Chopin on the grand piano while Alison’s father hits on the handyman in another room.
The overlaps and juxtapositions of these dissonant impressions ramp up the emotional intensity.
Not that the play is all melancholy. An appealing if wobbly number finds the children performing a bouncy mock commercial for their family’s funeral home that’s a riff on the Jackson Five. Later, they sing a Partridge Family-esque ditty, proclaiming “Everything’s all right, babe.” You might say “Fun Home” strives to put the “fun” in “dysfunctional.”
One scene finds a horrified, confused young Alison forced, for the first time, to assist her father in preparing a cadaver. Shrugging it off quickly, she writes in her diary: “Dad showed me a dead body today. Went swimming. Got a new Hardy Boy book. Had egg salad for lunch.”
The grown-up Alison presides over the flashbacks, interjecting clever commentary or captions, reminding us these scenes are essentially boxes from her graphic memoir. Ultimately, she finds solace, even a measure of catharsis, in translating her traumatic history into cartoons.
The cast, largely intact from the run at the Public, is exceptional. Malone’s captivating portrayal of grown-up Alison is a triumph of restraint and nuance. Cerveris renders the father’s ambivalence and regret with painful acuity.
Skeggs brings an impish charm to the young-adult Alison, as she reluctantly comes to accept her sexuality. Her comic, uplifting solo with the refrain “I’m changing my major to Joan” is a highlight of the evening. Another standout is young Alison’s ode to her first crush, “an old-school butch” delivery woman she saw at a diner, as sung by Lucas.
If you haven’t figured out by now, the “Fun” in the play’s title is caustically ironic. It’s actually the kids’ snarky nickname for their father’s creepy funeral home. But please keep it to yourself — we don’t want to scare off the tourists.
FUN HOME | Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St. | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $75-$150 at funhomebroadway.com or 212-239-6200| 100 mins., no intermission