We interrupt our normally scheduled programming (aka the chronological order of the shows I’ve seen) to first talk about Fun Home because it’s too important. I’ve been waiting for this show all season. I know this might sound a little over-the-top, but I can’t help myself: it’s flawless. End of story. A musical like this only comes around once in a while (you can see highlights here). Consider me officially obsessed.
Some backstory: Fun Home is based on the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted father. The name Bechdel might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the Bechdel test or the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Nevertheless, you’re about to get to know Alison and her family very well as she looks back on her childhood and teenage years, building a timeline and attempting to unlock (and draw) the mystery of her father. We meet her at three different stages: Young Alison is nine or so, Medium Alison a freshman in college, and current-day 43-year-old Alison.
Present-day Alison doesn’t quite narrate; rather she excavates her past with the audience in tow. As she sifts through her dad’s old things, she pieces together memories to literally draw from them and make a cartoon. And then she captions the different moments, casting a new light or interpretation on them whenever possible. “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay.” Through her eyes, we quickly fall into this world of memories. It’s additionally effective because the production is performed in the round; company and audience, we’re all in this together. The set pieces spin and shift and disappear through the floor as we move through time. Like the recent production of The Glass Menagerie, the design does an excellent job of creating a memory piece (shout-out to Associate Scenic Designer Tim McMath who designed our gorgeous Summertime set).
And within the in-the-round theatre, we meet fully developed, three-dimensional characters, and the fact that they’re based on a real family makes the experience all the more visceral. Each performance is more fantastic than the last. The chillingly good Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris loses himself in Bruce, Alison’s father – his inner pain radiating from every move, every smile or outburst, every awkward attempt to connect or push people away. The same goes for Tony-nominated Judy Kuhn’s poignant, understated performance as Alison’s mother, Helen. And the three Tony-nominated women who play Alison each bring something unique and beautiful to the role. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas plays Young Alison, and all I want to know is where did this girl come from?! She’s stellar and changes everything when she sings THIS (it will also be the Tony performance on Sunday). Emily Skeggs brings an infectious, wide-eyed joy to Medium Alison as she discovers her sexuality. And Beth Malone as adult Alison is the center of this show, keeping everyone and everything grounded. From the moment she starts speaking, you know you’re in good hands.
Here is one of my theories about musicals. If it has a bad score, it dies, it’s forgotten. If it has a great score and not the strongest book, it’s forgiven. As long as it’s got that score, people let the bad, typically contrived, book slide. So when a musical comes along with a book that’s just as strong as the score, if not stronger, it leaves a mark. Shows that meet this criteria stand out (think Sweeney Todd, Next to Normal). So bless you Lisa Kron for this book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori – whose music doesn’t always click with me – for writing a beautiful score that I’ve been listening to nonstop since Monday evening. The story weaves seamlessly in and out of song and spoken word (hear the nominee hopefuls discuss the music and lyrics here).
And just a quick word about the subject matter and gay characters. I won’t delve into this too much because I fear I’m not eloquent enough to discuss how important and enormous it is to have a lesbian character be the lead of a musical. It’s unheard of. So instead I’m going to quote an LA Times interview I just read with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at the Public Theater where Fun Home began Off-Broadway:
Fun Home, Eustis believes, has the potential to do for lesbians what Angels in America did for gay men: “Take a marginalized group and say, ‘No, you are actually center stage.’ The art form…depends on empathy. It has been magical watching Broadway audiences at Fun Home. No one is thinking, ‘Oh, I know a lesbian.’ They are identifying themselves with the story, and that changes you. Once you’ve identified with someone, you can’t think of them as the other anymore.”
As for Sunday’s awards, there are legit races this year with no clear frontrunner in multiple categories. And as far as Best Musical goes, Fun Home wins in my book, hands-down, but An American in Paris (truly gorgeous, review to come) may have the edge. We’ll have to tune in to find out how the chips fall. Regardless of who wins, this is an intimate, heart-wrenching, funny, true-to-life story of love, self-denial, self-discovery, and above all, family.
Caption: Get your tickets, and come on home.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel, Directed by Sam Gold
Circle in the Square Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus and Jenny Anderson
Pictured: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and the Cast of Fun Home
In honor of my second Violet review earlier this week, I would like to share a number from the show. This song is Flick’s anthem. It’s a stirring solo as he strives to inspire Violet to spread her wings. What begins as a simple marching rhythm grows into a rousing gospel-like tune (watch the writers talk about it here).
Here is “Let It Sing” performed by Tony nominee Joshua Henry at the 2014 Drama Desk Awards.
I have to say that amongst a season full of typical Broadway spectacle, it is refreshing to have a simple, understated musical as one of the options. Violet is an ultimate bare bones production: minimal staging on a minimal set. Don’t go expecting big dance numbers (the closest thing to that is the gospel number near the end). And don’t go to see money all over the stage in the form of flying carpets or a moving boxing ring. This musical is, at its core, a character study.
Based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, Violet is the tale of a disfigured woman (Violet, played by Sutton Foster) and her path to self-love. Growing up in North Carolina, Violet was raised by her widowed father and fell victim to a freak accident when her father’s axe blade came loose and struck her across the face. Thirteen years later, she embarks on a long bus journey to Tulsa, Oklahoma with the hope of being spiritually healed. On the way, she meets and grows close to two soldiers, Monty and Flick, forming an unexpected love triangle.
Even though Violet is being categorized as a revival for Tony season, this is actually the first time it has been on Broadway. There was an Off-Broadway run in 1997 for which it won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. After a successful concert performance at City Center Encores! this past summer, it has officially made the leap to Broadway thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company (check out some highlights here).
I decided to study the score in advance of seeing the show, listening to the cast recording countless times. There are some incredibly beautiful songs with lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek the Musical, Caroline, or Change). Since I became quite familiar with the music, I went to the theatre particularly curious about the book. Unfortunately it was not as fleshed out as I’d hoped (although this may be due to the fact that the musical has been cut down to one act). The love story is somewhat lacking; I never really got on board with the triangle. I think a large problem is that aside from Violet, we don’t get much development from the other characters. Flick sings in the end, “I’m not at all the man you first laid eyes on,” but I didn’t see a change. This is by no means a comment on Joshua Henry’s performance, which is smooth as silk. I think it’s more the script that leaves me wanting. Monty, the other male lead (played by the talented Colin Donnell), remains rather bland and two-dimensional throughout as well.
Here’s the real scoop though: Sutton Foster’s a star. Did you hear? There’s this actress who was the understudy and got bumped up to the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, and no one has looked back since. She deserves every Tony Award she will ever receive (two so far), every bit of praise and bit of attention she’s ever gotten. But truly, this isn’t news. Sutton shines in everything she touches, even as a character trying to hide herself from the world. From her hunched physicality, drawn-in shoulders, shielded eyes, wry humor, and using her hair as a barrier, you know who Violet is in an instant. Like in the Off-Broadway production, no make-up is used to create the scar. It is left entirely up to the imagination, and Sutton does all the work you need. This is the posture and behavior of a disfigured girl, ashamed to show her face because of how the world has treated her, and watching her transform over the course of the show is magnificent.
I hope to go back and see it again. I only saw the seventh preview or so, and I’m told it’s undergone several changes. Based on the glowing reviews the show received on Sunday night, I’m guessing things have only headed in the right direction. So even though the book felt thin to me and at times the stripped staging didn’t do much to help, I remain a huge fan of the score and this beautiful story of a girl finding herself. Oh, and of course – Sutton, Sutton, Sutton.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley, Directed by Leigh Silverman
American Airlines Theatre, Closing August 10th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, and Sutton Foster