This is going to be hard. I want to tell you about a highly original, marvelously acted, adventurous piece of musical theater I saw on Broadway last weekend, but I don’t want to give away much of the plot. I would hope you would see the play, as I did, knowing almost nothing about the details except that it has the highest number of Tony nominations this year with 12, alongside “An American in Paris,” and concurrently has garnered spectacular raves from critics and audiences.
For a play to be so applauded, it would have to be creative and break new ground for narrative, music and staging. “Fun Home” does all that. Performed at the Circle in the Square Theatre on 50th Street just off Eighth Avenue, and billed as a family tragicomedy, the show is adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, based on a memoir she kept through the years of her growing up.
OK, I will tell you it is both a coming of age and a coming out story. If you are the least bit uncomfortable with either of the themes, you should not see the play because the events portrayed are sometimes raw. And they are raw because they are heartbreakingly honest.
We all try to understand our parents, even more so as we age, because these are the two people who made us. In understanding them, we come to better know ourselves. So I will tell you further that the narrator of the play is the daughter and she is chasing her memories, trying to understand and come to terms with her father.
Memories have an evanescent, shimmering quality to them and that makes them hard to pin down with certainty, even in our minds, much less on a stage. Therefore the device that this play employs is particularly interesting. There are three actresses who play Alison, the narrator, at different times of her life — as an 8-year-old, a 19-year-old and her current age of 43 — as she looks on and occasionally cringes at what the other two say and do, If you think about it, we all react that way sometimes when we think of our younger selves.
So in this universal yearning to know our parents, some of the particulars of this family are unusual and in the viewing, they are wrenching. As has been said before, all happy families are happy in the same way, but unhappy families are unhappy uniquely.
Bruce, the father of three bright and imaginative children, is a high school English teacher, a restorer of old houses, the proprietor of a funeral home in a small Pennsylvania town and the husband of Helen, Alison’s mother. But his life is more than that, as divided personally as it is professionally, and therein lays the rest of the plot which I really am not going to tell you, however hard this is. I don’t want to ruin the surprises.
I will share with you, however, that the staging cleverly involves trapdoors opening and closing to disgorge and swallow up at different times objects in the home as large as the grand piano. When the lighting dims, it serves as a curtain would between scenes in a more conventional theater. And the music, highly original and opera-like as it is occasionally spoken and sung, perfectly carries forward the storyline and fills in the unsaid.
It is sometimes made up of big, brassy show tunes and sometimes of heartfelt yearnings.
Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn head up the cast in this poignant, provocative and haunting human drama, made all the more soulful because it is a real family we are watching. As they sometimes say on movie screens when the film ends, this story is based on actual events.
This musical play has gone in a new direction and can be as forthright because of the times in which we live.
Taboos can be spoken of out loud, and secrets can be revealed both on stage and in real life in an unprecedented way. This is both cathartic and liberating for audiences, as great art always is.