***Special Superlative Alert. This review will contain an overuse of superlatives. Be warned. If you know of a superlative that was not used in this review, consider it implied.***
In 2006, Alison Bechdel, creator of the Dykes to Watch Out For serial comic, (the origin of what is now called the Bechdel-Wallace Test,) winner of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, published a graphic memoir of her life called Fun Home. When I reviewed the book here, I said about it “Fun Home was incredibly good, and it simply doesn’t matter whether I liked it, or not.” It was brilliantly written, unremittingly intelligent, with breathtaking honesty about the lack of affection and emotional engagement in her family. And now…it is a play. A musical no less.
When we’re children, most of us have a good laugh at the idea of our lives as musicals. You’re standing with a sibling in the kitchen, and you break into a tuneless song about cereal and laugh. And here you are, Alison Bechdel, and this is a thing. Imagine that.*
A few weeks ago, the extremely kind folks at Fun Home the Musical invited me to see their show. I was very excited about this, and then, the reality sort of set in – this is a play…of a graphic novel…and it’s a musical. My first thought was “Really? Do I want to do this? I don’t even like musicals.”** But, yeah, I wanted to do this. Happily, my wife joined me for the evening. She was going to be a good barometer for whether the show held up for someone with no preconceived notions of or experience with the book.
I’m going to skip to the punch line and tell you that, as we stood waiting for our car at the parking lot, sobbing, we agreed that it was an amazing show. Absolutely fantastic in every way. In fact, she gave it the score 11 on a scale from 1 to 10.
You do not need to have read Fun Home*** to enjoy this show. It was so tightly put together that you could walk in cold, with no idea who Alison Bechdel is or what the book was about and still walk away impressed. My wife, who has not read the book, is emphatic about this. As a musical adaptation of a graphic novel, it was enormously successful. The play begins and ends with the concept of comic art, and the adult Alison “captions” the action from the side, reminding us that these are drawings, memories, a cartoon, even as the drama sucks us in.
Let’s start with the cast. It’s a small cast, and with a group that size, if there is even one weak link, it really shows. There were no weak links in this cast. All three of the ladies who play Alison Bechdel as a child, a college student and adult, were fantastic. Of them, I wish I could say which was best, although, as my favorite song “Ring of Keys” was sung by “Small Alison,” Sydney Lucas, I’m slightly partial to her. But in truth, they were all incredibly strong. Here’s “Ring of Keys “for you to enjoy…but she was even better in tonight’s performance.
My wife’s favorite song was sung by “Middle Alison,” Emily Skeggs, who was…perfect. She was so adorable and geeky, with awkward body language and introvert physicality – any one of us would instantly see ourselves in her. Here’s Emily, singing “Changing my Major” – I’m only sorry there’s no video.
But, when Beth Malone, as adult Alison, and Michael Cerveris who played Bruce, her father, sang their final duet, pretty much everyone on my side of the theater lost it. The sniffling on the stage may have been acting, but no one in the seats were faking it. (No link to this song. I want you to see the play live, so it gets you in the gut the way it was meant to.) Michael Cerveris deserves a nod for his performance. Pent-up, frustrated, awkward, desperate, pathetic, he was genuinely masterful. And Judy Kuhn as Alison’s mother…wow. Just…wow. Her solo song is crushing.
The rest of the cast is equally exceptional. Roberta Colindrez as Joan was funny and sexy in a college dykey way and Joel Perez, who played several characters, really nailed the tawdryness of Bruce’s affairs. Zell Steele Morrow had gap-toothed little brother appeal in every way, and Oscar Williams was charismatic as Alison’s brother Christian. Every single performer had a great voice, but we felt that the three youngest, Lucas, Morrow and Williams, really stood out as exceptional singers and established the show as something to be taken seriously musically.
Which brings me to the songs. They were fantastic. One of the things that has me depressed about Broadway recently, has been the lack of…everything. Quite a lot of what’s playing are tried and true hits, stage adaptations of movies and a number of retreads from the past. Gigi was playing across the street, for instance. I was looking for something fresh that I would not have seen or heard before. With the exception of one song, which was still good, just rather Broadway-musical-esque, I found exactly what I had hoped in Fun Home. I’ll be singing “Ring of Keys” for days to come. As Bechdel comments in her comic, it’s a lesbian anthem. Kudos to Tesori and Kron who did the music. Absolutely stellar. I especially liked the leitmotif of “I want…” in several of the pieces.
Even the theater did the play justice. It’s currently playing in Circle in the Square, so seats are in set all the way around the stage floor – and the actors really use the space well. The audience, which was pleasantly mixed gender- and age-wise, with a strong lean towards the LGBTQ side, was on their feet immediately as the clapping began.
Obviously, the scenes of identity and sexual awakening resonate like crazy for me…and based on the reactions of the audience, for many. Did it have as much resonance for the non-LGBTQ audience members? (I asked a straight friend who had seen it off Boradway and he said that yes, while of course the ring of keys was not a specific trigger, he too had that moment when he saw an adult in a bookstore and thought, “I know you.”)
I have only one thing left to say. If you can see this play, go see this play.
Friends of mine from out of town, if you want to see this play, I’ll give you a bed, put you on the right train and pick you up at the station when you come back.
Okazu Readers – you, especially, need to see this play. For so many of us, this is us. This is our lives and our songs.
Overall – 11
It was a a play…of a graphic novel…and it’s a musical. So it gets an extra point.
Go see Fun Home. It was, in every way, an extraordinary show.****
**Except for 1776. I will always love that musical. And, in retrospect, an awful lot of the musicals I’ve seen had some relation to comics: Annie (it was my sister’s 11th birthday present); Scarlet Pimpernel which I first read in classic comic form; Rose of Versailles, of course; Hakushaku no Reijou, the last Takarazuka thing I saw; Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, which was amazing. Clearly this is a thing with me.
*** You should read Fun Home. Buy it, borrow it from the library, but you should really read it.
**** It won 5 Tony Awards last night and deserved every one of them.