Broadway has traditionally thrived on misfits: disfigured Phantoms, consumptive French prostitutes, grown adults dressed like Jazzercizing felines—even a glittery, self-proclaimed “girlyboy” with an Angry Inch. But Fun Home (now showing at Circle in the Square Theatre in an in-the-round staging) may still be one of the least likely musicals ever to come to the Great White Way.
Then again, the memoir it’s based on, Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name, was an equally unlikely literary phenomenon: The hand-drawn story of a girl who grew up in a gloomy Victorian playing hide-and-seek in caskets with her brothers (her father was the town’s part-time undertaker) and trying to solve the mystery of her parents’ unhappy marriage (he was also, it turns out, having sexual liaisons with men, some of them teenagers).
Or, as the adult Alison (Beth Malone) says frankly in the play: “Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.” Malone is actually only one of three iterations of Alison onstage; she also appears as a sweet, scrappy kid (Sydney Lucas), and as an Oberlin undergrad (Emily Skeggs) finally coming into her own sexuality. No Alison is ever onstage without one of her other selves for long; even when Malone isn’t speaking she’s almost always perched somewhere nearby, watching over and sometimes interjecting on the action. The clever construction of the set—pieces rise and fall from trap-door floor panels like stealth magic tricks—allows scenes to move seamlessly between drawing rooms and dorm rooms and back again.
We’ve gotten this far without mentioning that somewhere in Fun Home’s journey from page to stage, it became a musical. And honestly, it doesn’t feel like an entirely promising prospect early on: warbled lines about finding a gorgeous piece of Irish linen at a barn sale (“It All Comes Back [Opening]”) and dusting the Dresden figurines in the living room for a visitor (“Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue”) sound disconcertingly like a J. Peterman catalog being read in multiple octaves.
But the songs, by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, soon begin to bloom. There’s wit and poignancy layer-caked in nearly every number—and nice doses of levity too (see the sibling disco-boogie “Come to the Fun Home” and the rapturous postcoital spree “Changing My Major”).
Bechdel’s father Bruce (Tony winner Michael Cerveris, Sweeney Todd) has a lot to carry, and the actor smartly telegraphs the inner turmoil of a man whose disappointments and dishonesty have made him almost as much of a stranger to himself as he is to his daughter. But Judy Kuhn (Chess), playing his wife Helen, has her own quiet revolution, letting the real, ragged human beneath the dutiful-housewife veneer fight her way out.
All three Alisons share the same refreshing kind of naturalism, and each actress makes the part her own without showboating or selling the story’s knottier sentiments short to reach the cheap seats. A little bit of nuance inevitably gets lost when subject matter this dark is set to song; death and deep family schisms, after all, aren’t always fit for jazz hands. But like the book, Fun Home manages to use an oft-unserious medium to deliver something seriously, singularly moving. A-