FUN HOME has not fallen prey to Broadway’s worst disease.
It can happen to a production after performers do eight shows a week, month after month or year after year. They get tired; they get bored. Ideally, they fight it, but some performers don’t. I remember one Broadway musical that was out of gas only a month after it had opened. (Never mind what it was; the statute of limitations has run out on that crime.)
To be fair, one reason that the year-old FUN HOME is in great shape is that five of its nine performers are relatively new to the production. And to prove that director Sam Gold was intent on doing the best he could for his Tony-winning Best Musical baby, he went out and got a blue-chipper to play Helen Bechdel, whose knows that her husband Bruce is in the closet and that he comes out from time to time.
She’s Rebecca Luker, the three-time Tony nominee who can hit the high notes that composer Jeanine Tesori penned. Luker shows us a woman who tries to keep her nervousness in check whenever a handyman shows up at the house, for she knows full well that he could well be her husband’s next one-night or ten-minute stand. Considering that Helen is living in the late ‘60s in rural Pennsylvania and has three children, she hasn’t many options but to hope for the best while fearing the worst.
Being sexually frustrated inures Bruce to her feelings; he’s now at the point where he doesn’t care if he hurts them. Bruce gives us the impression that if he pushes Helen enough to demand a divorce, so be it, for their friends, neighbors and relatives will blame her — because she certainly won’t admit to marrying a gay.
If stereotypes mean anything, we get a hint in the first scene that Bruce is gay and that his tween daughter Alison has homosexual potential. He speaks of Irish linen with reverence and treats a brass coffee pot with tenderness. When he and Alison discover a dead mouse, she doesn’t recoil in horror but asks to keep it.
And yet, for all the care that Bruce takes with the house – making Felix Unger look like Oscar Madison – when a young well-built man drops by to do an odd job, Bruce encourages the man in dirt-stained overalls to lounge on the chaise longue. “It’s just furniture,” he mews. There’s an exception to every rule, isn’t there – especially when it might lead to sex.
So FUN HOME will never be confused with FUNNY GIRL or A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. There would have been a time when Alison Bechdel’s frank graphic-memoir would have never been considered for musicalization. But in these more enlightened times for both society and musical theater, Tesori and bookwriter-lyricist Lisa Kron were able to tackle the subject – and succeed mightily.
Musicals are of course famous for their songs and dances, but the moment that may be the most potent in FUN HOME comes about halfway through the 100-minute intermissionless show. Alison and her two brothers are asleep – or so Bruce thinks when he tries to tip-toe out of the house. Gold’s direction builds the tension to a nerve-wracking high. Will he make it out? Will one of the kids catch him? What will he say if one does?
Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony for his performance as Bruce, was out on Tuesday when I attended, so I can’t say for sure that his performance has maintained its power. If I had to bet, however, I’d stake my money that he’s just as good now; Cerveris is one of our most reliable actors.
He might also be inspired by Beth Malone, an original caster still there as the adult Alison. The role mostly has her remember and observe what went on in this expected-to-be-idyllic house on Maple Avenue, but when she must come out with an observation, she makes it simultaneously tart and regret-filled.
But if you attend and Jim Stanek is in for Cerveris, you won’t be cheated. Stanek lets us see into a man who wants to be a good parent, but his neuroses – not meaning homosexuality, of course, but stress, depression, guilt and anxiety – keep him from succeeding. A broken man is right twice a day.
When Stanek looks in the mirror, his Bruce is able to convince himself that, despite reaching middle-age, “I still may break a heart or two.” In fact, Bruce will shatter four hearts, but not in the way he thinks.
Among the newcomers are Gabriella Pizzolo, Cole Grey and Zell Steele Morrow as the Bechdel tots. There’s a moment when a song is punctuated with an ominous note, all three kids sit down at the precise right moment to underline it. If timing is indeed everything, these kids have everything.
They’re delightful and hilarious in the show’s title song. Morrow gets to be the lead singer in this ad hoc rock group, and the little peanut emerges as a big cheese. Danny Mefford has provided some helter-skelter choreography that reminds us that in real life, kids don’t have a choreographer.
Pizzolo as “Small Alison” makes hay out of the show’s most memorable song, “Ring of Keys.” Even as a child, when Alison sees her first butch lesbian, she has an epiphany. Here’s a role model who has the music that makes her dance.
Most impressive is Pizzolo in a tense scene. Bruce confesses to her that he’s been court-ordered to see a psychiatrist. The very measured tones that Pizzolo gives when asking “How. Come.” – making them into two demanding sentences full of doubt and suspicion – suggests that Pizzolo is in for a long and fruitful career. The girl already knows (informed by Gold, we can infer) that a kid needn’t overdo a performance to have audiences say, “She’s terrific!”
“Small Alison” eventually gives way to “Medium Alison,” who’s now played to perfection by Lauren Patten. She has a defeated posture and hands-in-pocket nervousness because she doesn’t know what to do with those two things on the end of her arms. Now she’s away from home where she’s been closeted, and at college where she could “experiment.” She fights it, though.
Broadway aficionados usually make up the first few months of a run; then the “civilians” come in. Seeing FUN HOME with these theatergoers turns out to be more gratifying, for their laughter, applause and smiles on their faces (easily seen in this circular theater where the audience across the stage faces us) show that they’re not only accepting of gay love, but that they also relate what’s happening on stage to their own romantic history.
For after Medium Alison makes love with Joan (the still-excellent Roberta Colindrez), she sings a delicious waltz in which she states that the young woman is now the center of her world. Straight or gay, which of us can’t relate to the time when we fell heels-over-head in first love and nothing else in the world was remotely as important as that other person? How thrilling to see a tourist-filled audience bubbling with laughter of recognition, concentrating on the love that’s here and not worrying that the lovers are gay. The message that love is love is one that we’ll gladly subject to long-run-itis.