NEW YORK — On the recent HBO “Six by Sondheim” documentary, Leonard Bernstein was lamenting the fact that no one besides Stephen Sondheim had picked up the “West Side Story” mantle of merging musical theater and opera.
Too bad he didn’t live long enough to get past the “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon” poperatic treacle of the time and see and hear the wondrous work that composer Jeanine Tesori has done with Tony Kushner in “Caroline, or Change” and now, “Fun Home,” with Lisa Kron at the Public Theater.
Like “Caroline,” “Fun Home” is more in line with Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti,” a musical investigation of family life gone wrong than “West Side Story.” The musical is based on Alison Bechdel’s 2007 graphic novel about her tortuous but loving relationship with her father. He was a closeted gay man who, we find out early in the musical, killed himself four months after she came out as a lesbian in college.
If you infer from that a historical dialectic that celebrates gay rights and condemns hiding from one’s real nature then you’re not wrong — that’s all in “Fun Home.” The musical, though, is so much richer than just a historical moral lesson. The moments of tenderness between Bruce (Michael Cerveris) and his three children are palpable, as is the sadness of his wife (Judy Kuhn) in living a lie, along with him.
Cerveris and Kuhn are both superb, which will come as no shock to anyone who’s seen their previous work, but then the whole production is pretty faultless. Sam Gold opens up the Public stage in a way that embraces Bechdel’s youthful “Fun Home” festivities (despite the fact that it’s partly a funeral parlor) as well as the work space inhabited by the grown-up Bechdel (Beth Malone) in this memory musical. Another strand represents the collegiate world of Medium Alison.
Most important is the music itself, featuring the rich palette that Tesori demonstrated in “Caroline” — a bit of folk rock here, some Partridge family happy rock there, and beautiful minor-key lamentation running through the course of events. Kron, who wrote the books and lyrics, isn’t as sharp a writer as Kushner — who is? — but the empathy she has for everyone onstage is one of the main reasons that each is such a believable, moving character. Tesori's work with both Kushner and Kron is further evidence that collaboration is a much more fruitful way of writing for the stage than going it alone, unless your name is Sondheim.
This montage gives you a good sense of the show:
It’s always fun when you see something this good in New York to imagine what a Boston incarnation would look like, as in: Any director who wouldn’t cast Leigh Barrett in the Judy Kuhn role is nuts; Tom Derrah would be great in the Cerveris role; doesn’t Marianna Basham look like Roberta Colindrez, Alison’s lover?
Kuhn is one of the underappreciated stars of musical theater; I’d see her in anything except the aforementioned treacle and she brings the house down in "Days and Days," in which she tells Alison about her father's homosexuality. Cerveris (“Sweeney Todd,” “Assassins”) is one of the more chameleon performers around. I barely recognized him from “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins.” And even in this part he goes from gentle to dangerous on a dime.
Still, as I said, I can imagine other actors in those parts. Not so for Small Alison. If there’s any young actor in Boston who could potentially come close to Sydney Lucas as a young child I haven’t seen her. The singing-dancing-acting wunderkind goes toe to toe with Cerveris. She doesn’t pull at the heartstrings — there’s nothing cloying about her. When you have a smile like hers and the all-around talent she possesses, you don’t have to resort to mawkishness.
It probably helps when the material itself isn’t at all mawkish. And when the creative team gives her, and everyone else in the cast, the wherewithal to put together such a smart, moving production.
- The New Yorker Watches Stephen Sondheim Watch 'Fun Home'
- Alison Bechdel Watches 'Fun Home'
- Bechdel talks about her drawing process:
This program aired on December 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.