Some say that if you can’t forgive your parents, you’re doomed to become them. But this ambitious musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s terrific graphic memoir Fun Home finds a third option. ''Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town,'' announces Alison (Beth Malone) in the first scene. ''And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist.''
If you don't laugh at lines like that, you might cry, because they underscore the saddest thing about Fun Home. The title refers to the funeral home where Alison’s father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris), raised her along with her brothers (Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale). But it’s also a nod to the fun-house mirror reflection between father and daughter: You get the sense that Alison and Bruce might've ended up telling the same story, except that one of them was lucky enough to grow up during the gay-rights-conscious '70s, and the other was stuck in a real Douglas Sirk melodrama, trapped in a beautiful, antiques-filled Victorian house with a woman he didn't love (Judy Kuhn, who radiates quiet rage as the repressed wife), and tempted by a life that he couldn't admit he wanted.
The songs perfectly capture that longing, with music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline or Change) and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (The 2.5 Minute Ride, Well), whose own plays delve into family memoir. One number finds Bruce's wife and kids checking off everything on his wish list, from Dresden figurines laid out on the breakfront, to a brass candelabra set at an angle. It’s a brilliant reversal of the aspirational power ballad that sets the stakes in so many musicals: think of The Little Mermaid’s Ariel coveting everything on dry land, or Wicked's Elphaba demanding to meet the Wizard. Here, Bruce's family catalogues his desires without ever mentioning the one thing he needs most.
Cerveris is phenomenal, preventing this very flawed, human figure from becoming a simple cartoon, even though he sports a classic comic-book hairdo. And the younger versions of Alison breakout talent Sydney Lucas, as the preteen who revolts against wearing dresses, and the affecting Alexandra Socha, as the 19-year-old who scores her first girlfriend at Oberlin both bring a genuine vulnerability to their roles. But Malone's Adult Alison feels just as two-dimensional as any pen and ink drawing. We learn nothing about how her childhood has impacted her as a grown woman, so it’s hard to understand what motivates her to pick up a sketchbook, long after her father's death, and delve into her past.
''You were born on this farm,'' Adult Alison sings about Bruce. ''Here's our house / Here's the spot where you died / I can draw a circle... You lived your life inside.'' David Zinn's set demonstrates this well, with Alison’s childhood, college years, and adult career playing out within the same rotating circle as her father's life. But the staging might be a little too neat, especially for a story about how messy things can get when you don't know exactly who you are. By the end of the musical, you still don't know who Adult Alison is. You can see her circle. But you just have to imagine what's inside. B+