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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It's the story of a Lesbian artist reflecting on her coming of age in Beech Creek, Pa, the middle child and only girl in a family in which true feelings were never open for discussion. In her father Bruce's case that meant his being Gay was sublimated by obsessively fixing up the family home into a museum or "fun home." The Bechdel kids also grew up around another "fun home"— the family business, a funeral home that Bruce manages when not antiquing, renovating or teaching English at the town's high school.
Not an easy story to translate into a musical. But Kron and Tesori have found an effective device to tell this sometimes funny but often painful coming of age story: They've created three Alisons to make sense of a seemingly normal small town family whose unresolved, undiscussed dysfunction is the result of a brilliant, complex father's obsessive-compulsive behavior.
There's the adult Alison, who's a stand-in for the author. As she journeys into the recesses of her memory to help her create the images and captions for her memoir, this 43-year-old Alison becomes the show's Greek-Chorus/Narrator. As she digs into the inner recesses of her mind, images and memories become concrete. We meet not just her brothers and parents but two younger versions of herself: a "small" or 8-year-old Alison and after a while, a "medium" or 19-year-old Alison. But dominating the family and Alison's memories is the stubbornly impenetrable father.
Under Sam Gold's smooth and subtle direction Alison's story seamlessly shifts from her drawing table to vividly reenacted scenes from her unusual childhood. Tesori's lovely score includes songs for the happier as well as darker moods. All are tightly integrated into the script, which probably accounts for the absence of a song list in the program as is usually the case for operas and sung-through musicals. (A list of songs is included with the production notes).
From Beth Malone with her butch haircut to Joel Perez in several roles the entire ensemble is excellent. But as Bruce and the spunky 8-year-old Alison are the linchpin characters, the actors who play them are also the show's standout performers. For Michael Cerveris, this is one more star turn. Though he's at first almost unrecognizable in a neat blonde wig, his silky singing voice is instantly familiar. Sydney Lucas, who's too young to match Cerveris's impressive resume, is terrific as "small" Alison whose sexual preferences will remain dormant until she goes off to college as "medium" Alison (Alexandra Socha).
Right from the beginning we see Bruce as someone who seems to enjoy his children and family life but is also a demanding and controlling tyrant. His true love is clearly the house into which he pours all his suppressed passion.
The inconsistently fun and affectionate father is evident in a scene when Bruce lifts up little Alison in a game of airplane, but quickly loses interest and unceremoniously drops her while she's eager to continue the game. His imposing his wishes and interests on the family is potently illustrated in a scene when they're enlisted to make the spectacular house even more so for a visit from a woman who is interested in making it part of a house tour. Kron's lyrics for "Come to the "Fun Home" sum up the essence of how this family functions or rather dysfunctions: "See how we polish and we shine/We rearrange and realign/ Everything is balanced and serene/Like chaos never happens if it's never seen."
Kron's smart and unforced rhyming lyrics and Tesori's melodic score include the kids a catchy commercial for the kids to lighten Bruce's inexplicable eerie summoning "small" Alison to hand him a scissor with a Jackson Five style commercial for this their second fun home ("We take dead bodies ev'ry day of the week so/You've got no reason to roam/Use the Bechdel Funeral Home").
The accummulation of unexpressed feelings are most devastatingly on display in a scene where Bruce brings Roy (one of several small parts by Joel Perez) home ostensibly to help with the yard work, and Judy Kuhn's Helen looks at them knowingly but, as she's done for all the years of her marriage, says nothing. Instead we see a triptych of images: Bruce and Roy. . .the kids watching TV. . . and Helen at the grand piano in a ballad that's a heartbreaking recap of all the years of her marriage ("Days made of bargains I made because I thought as a wife/I was meant to. . .").
David Zinn's sliding and gliding props and Ben Stanton's lighting simply and effectively accommodate the scene to scene shifts (Zinn does double duty as costume designer, most notably for Ceveris's Bruce). Bright and peppy, or mournful, Tesori's score has some hauntingly beautiful moments. Unfortunately, the six musicians tend to overwhelm the singing. They're fine when quietly underscoring the wordless scenes and scene changes but it's a shame that the instruments too often drown out the lyrics. This may be due the use of what's usually the Newman Theater's front row for a makeshift pit that puts them right before and almost on a level with the actors. It also may be mostly a problem for audiences sitting further back than the first five or six rows.
Not having read Bechdel's book, I can't really compare the stage to the book version. However, I can say that familiarity with the source is not needed to follow this musical version of the author-artist's journey to understanding herself and her father. It's not a journey geared to mass-market audiences, but one open-minded, adventurous musical theater lovers will not want to miss.