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Broadway, it’s not just for gay men anymore! We’ve seen more than our share of masculine coming-out stories on stage over the years, and now lesbians are finally getting their turn in Fun Home, a dark but delightful new chamber musical at the Circle in the Square based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s best-selling coming-of-age graphic memoir.
Bechdel is the central figure on stage, in three incarnations who seem to hold hands across generations: the spiky-haired butch cartoonist in her mid-40s (Beth Malone, thoughtfully introspective), who seeks to re-create her coming-out saga and her remarkable family upbringing; the intellectually curious Oberlin College freshman in the throes of first love and self-discovery (Emily Skeggs, wide-eyed and relatable), and the preteen tomboy who is aware she’s different than other girls but unsure just what that means (precociously gifted Sydney Lucas). Together, these three remarkable actresses present a searing and seamlessly evolving portrait of the artist, underscoring how the girl is mother to the woman (to upend the familiar masculine phrase).
But this is also a family portrait, and Alison’s father, Bruce (played by Michael Cerveris with the authority of man over-compensating for a truly conflicted soul), is a singular character: a closeted gay man who teaches high school English and runs the family funeral home and restores his dilapidated old house and flirts inappropriately with teenage boys and can’t quite bring himself to publicly acknowledge his daughter’s homosexuality (though he sends her a copy of Colette as pleasure reading in college). As his wife, Judy Kuhn offers an acute look at a woman who subsumes her suspicions and insecurities for the sake of appearances and the stability of suburban domesticity.
Director Sam Gold, who also staged the world premiere at the Public Theater in fall 2013, makes smart use of the Circle in the Square’s in-the-round space. With the possible exception of the climactic scene of Bruce’s apparent suicide, this staging has greater impact than in the Public’s proscenium.
Composer Jeanine Tesori (working with playwright/lyricist Lisa Kron) makes much of the story’s initial 1970s setting, drawing on both folk and pop idioms of that era for her tuneful score. There’s even a charming Jackson 5 parody “Come to the Fun Home” that the elementary-school-age Alison performs with her younger mopheaded brothers (Oscar Williams and Zell Morrow), whipping up as an adorable, pre-YouTube kind of TV commercial for the family mortuarial business.
There are a number of stunning songs throughout Fun Home, from young Alison’s prescient ballad “Ring of Keys,” to college-age Alison’s gushing and gawky ode to first love, “Changing My Major,” to the grown Alison’s reflectively folksy “Telephone Wire,” a reconstruction of Alison’s final conversation with her father before his death. Coming late in the show, that song manages to dramatize what is too often ineffable: It’s a fascinating exploration of missed communication, of vital things left unsaid, of the long shadow cast by regret. And it offers the perfect climax to a bold and beautiful new musical that celebrates those who are able to embrace their truest selves — even as it reveals the tragic consequences that can befall those who don’t. Grade: A–