As furniture disappeared into dark chasms and gaping holes remained on stage, I felt a deep sense of anguish. This re-staging of Fun Home on Broadway had cracked the story open for me in new and more effective ways. Suddenly everything I was seeing on stage felt stuffed with more meaning and emotion--even the absence of things had multiple interpretations. I had few complaints when Fun Home played downtown at the Public. The production directed by Sam Gold, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron was one of my favorite shows of 2013. But the strategic differences Sam Gold has applied to this Broadway production in the round showed he was solving problems I did not even realize were there. And in doing so he's made a stronger, more visually dynamic work. And I did not think that that was possible. He's made something I thought was pretty near perfect even better.
The plot remains the same. Alison (Beth Malone) is trying to draw the book that would become Fun Home. She tries to unlock what happened with her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris), her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) and how her coming out to her parents led to her father's suicide. She thinks about herself in her early years (Sydney Lucas is Small Alison) when she and her siblings (Zell Steele Morrow, Oscar Williams) were witness to her parents fights and played in the family funeral home. She also remembers the handyman Roy (Joel Perez) who used to babysit them. She focuses on her freshman year in college (Emily Skeggs is Middle Alison) and her first girlfriend Joan (Roberta Colindrez).
Everything I loved about the Public production remains. They've made changes to some of the material. A song was cut. I noticed changes in dialogue here and there. It's hard for me to remember scene by scene and it's possible there has been some re-arranging of scenes. Tesori and Kron's killer songs remain so. Ring of Keys, Days and Days, and finally the gut-wrenching Telephone Wire reduce me to tears every time. Lucas, Kuhn, and Malone, respectively, continue to dig into these songs and release the emotional landmines within them. But how that material is presented has changed and those changes by Gold and Co. are so remarkable it is worth discussing them at some length.
Gold is using space in this production in really intriguing ways. He's building in empty spaces to represent retreating memories. The entire production has been structured to be a more solid representation of Alison's struggle to draw the book and her memories. To do this he has integrated Beth Malone into the production completely. As the productions have wended their way from workshop to Broadway, it seems like this piece of the puzzle has been the most difficult. They've brought Malone in more and more to the action but finally in the round, she is able to participate in the action in a way that she was not before. Malone is an incredible talent and this staging shows that off. Rather than leaving her as observer, here she is the source of the story. As she wrestles with memories and truth, it is staged like she is unpacking of all of this. The non-linear timeline makes more sense because the narrative is driven by Alison and her ebb and flow memories. This was true at the Public but it becomes even more personalized and alive on Broadway. Where the memories are too strong they are banished--and people leave the stage. Where memories are embarrassing they are cringed at. As if she's turning the pages of a diary of her life, these scenes catch her off-guard, scare her, and inspire her to draw. The fragility of where she is going and how hard this is for her is more clear.
On Broadway it became more apparent how she sees her own revelation undoing the stability of her family. Her unfairly bearing the responsibility for the family feels so much more acute and so much more driven by how she "remembers" it. As much as that was in the show before, I did not feel it as much as I did on Broadway.
Gold has also found a way to stage the distance between Middle Alison and her family after she has revealed she is gay. And although the decor of the house has not seemed to change a great deal from the Public, when Middle Alison and her girlfriend Joan return to the house she grew up in and Middle Alison is so changed, we experience the house differently as well. Up to this point the furniture has been swirling object on the stage but when Middle Alison returns it rises from underneath the stage like it has been conjured from her memories. And everything is just so. Alison and Joan even enter from the audience showing their outsider status compared to this house and this world that is not theirs.
Gold tried to use cartoon panels projected on a curtain at the Public and it never worked (it was my one little nit). Here, in the round he can project them into the floor and people can be boxed off in them. I noticed the lighting design by Ben Stanton also helped define space, and drive our focus in ways that were tremendously helpful. The tiny bits of dark feathering from the lighting design around the black chasms on stage was the kind of small detail that just added so much more to the work.
Gold makes space for silence in the musical--which seems so crazy but absolutely appropriate here. No only does it allow the performers the space for them to develop their characters it gives us breathing room between songs that are packed with information, emotion, and nuance.
Emotionally the work has gotten more powerful. The relationships between the characters feel richer. The push and pull attachment of Small Alison to her father and his mentoring (which at times can be cruel) makes more sense. Her blind devotion to him makes us understand where Middle Alison is when she goes away to college and why the fracturing of their relationship is so much more crushing.
I felt more impact from the small moments between Cerveris and Lucas. You feel the abandonment of Small Alison as her father leaves the children alone to go out cruising. His deterioration with her revelation is also richer. What might have read as quirkiness in the beginning or his idiosyncratic way becomes more symptomatic of his mental illness and deterioration. The family's struggle with his mental illness--and Alison's awareness of it as a young child is also more sharply rendered.
When Alison's father calls to her and adult Alison is "seen" for the first time in the show and participates in the final scene with him, I gasped. Malone reacts with such surprise.. She becomes the child again. Their car ride together (on a rotating bench) gives the whole audience a chance to engage with this crucial scene. Malone in song and performance takes us through every step of the excruciating pain and childlike hope of Alison's magical thinking.
Gold, Tesori, and Kron have worked tirelessly for years to make this work. Their hard work has paid off because they have unlocked the greatness of this story and we're the lucky recipients.