Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Album Review: FUN HOME (ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING)
I hardly know where to start with this album... and the reason for that is because there is so much that's fantastic about it that it's almost overwhelming to write about. Immortalized absolutely beautifully by the excellent record label PS Classics, Fun Home is so good, it deserves to be the album that is played continuously in musical theatre heaven.
Telling too much of Fun Home's devastatingly beautiful and heartbreaking story would soften its impact, but I will say that the musical is set up as a memory play (a la The Glass Menagerie) with a present day, 43 year old Alison Bechdel compiling her now-famous graphic novel/memoir. She reaches into her painful past growing up in a funeral home that her family owned and operated as well as dealing with her mother's cold distance, her complex father's overwhelming temper and hyper vigilant perfectionism, and Alison's own discovery of her sexuality. It's not a spoiler to mention that Alison's father, Bruce Bechdel, is secretly gay and has had sexual experiences with young boys. Nor is it a spoiler that Bruce killed himself by jumping in front of a transport truck while Alison was still in college. Alison mentions all of this at the very top of the show... but it's less about the destination and more about the journey. As Bruce sings in the electric opening It All Comes Back: "I want to know what is true/ Dig deep into who, and what, and why, and when/ Until now gives way to then." And with these words, Alison's journey into her past begins as she tries to piece together and make sense of her complicated relationship with her father.
Musically, this is composer Jeanine Tesori's best work to date. Tesori fearlessly explores arrhythmic, tense, and dissonant melodies as well as a brave amount of musical genres. There is an exciting amount of variety in the music: A mix of contemporary electronic songs, 70's style pop, folk music, soaring arias, and musical theatre songs in styles that span decades of the form. It's an eclectic mix, to say the least. And miraculously, it all works. Additionally, it supports playwright Lisa Kron's words, which make up the show's book in addition to the lyrics. Her lyrics are blunt, economical, and full of poetry while still remaining grounded in jarring truth. For a first time lyricist, Kron's work is nothing short of stunning. Her writing is better than any I've heard in any contemporary musical, and I say that without hyperbole or exaggeration. They are smart and deep while remaining totally accessible... not an easy feat.
The glorious cast consists of perfect vessels for this beautiful material. Alison Bechdel is played by three different actors at three different ages: Sydney Lucas as Young Alison, Alexandra Socha as Medium Alison, and Beth Malone as the present day Alison. All three are excellent, and when the trio sings the show's finale Flying Away, there is an overwhelming amount of emotion and cathartic power bursting at the seams.
Beth Malone's Alison is primarily an observer and narrator of the past, but she grounds the show and gives it a devastating emotional core. Hearing her cope with her past as it comes rushing back to her is beyond moving, particularly in the heart-wrenching moments where she steps into a pivotal memory with her father. Her performance of the song Telephone Wire cuts deeply.
Alexandra Socha's college age Alison masterfully rides the line between reality and caricature, carrying a huge and hilarious awkwardness while remaining a compellingly truthful presence. Her big song, Changing My Major, is incredibly funny and clever, and Socha rides it out to the fullest.
But the real star here in the remarkable Sydney Lucas, who plays Alison at roughly age eight. I've never seen a child actor who completely avoids being saccharine and grating. Her singing voice is strong and her acting ability is astonishingly well beyond her years. She's also given one of the show's best songs, Ring of Keys, in which the young Alison sees a butch lesbian delivery woman in a diner and experiences feelings that she's never felt before and can't identify. All she knows is that she sees something of herself in her. It's a brilliant and genuinely innovative song... where else have you heard a song about the beginnings of sexual discovery sung from the perspective of a young child?
As mother Helen Bechdel, the always excellent Judy Kuhn does no less excellent work here. She's given decidedly little to do for the majority of the show... but towards the end, her poignant and devastating aria Days and Days, sung about her wasted life in a loveless and abusive relationship, makes her limited presence totally worthwhile. She also carries the smart and memorable Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue, a song at the top of the show where the family frantically gets their house clean and precisely organized to Bruce's perfectionist standards. It flips the typical musical theatre "I Want" song on it's head, turning it into a "He Wants" song. It's very telling about Bruce and his tendencies, while he isn't even present on stage.
Michael Cerveris plays Bruce, and even with a resume of impressive roles and critically acclaimed performances, turns in perhaps his best work yet as the complex and deeply disturbed patriarch. Besides his job as a high school teacher and a funeral director in the family's funeral home, he obsessively maintains his house, insisting that every detail be perfectly in place. Toward his family, he can turn from being loving and warm to enraged and downright scary at the drop of a hat. Cerveris' performance, even in the audio-only presence on the album, is remarkably nuanced and there is a notable amount of sympathy and pain to be found in such an unlikable and tyrannical person. In the unsettling and upsetting scene where Bruce seduces a young man in a private room while his wife plays the piano and his children watch television just outside the door, Cerveris' performance simultaneously angers us and breaks our hearts. And he's given the ultimate explosion in the powerful Edges of the World, where the crumbling house Bruce is trying to maintain becomes a metaphor for his own emotional structure falling to pieces. It burns with intensity, and Cerveris pours every last bit of himself into it.
PS Classics has beautifully immortalized this show, having included a significant amount of dialogue with the songs. It does a terrific job of preserving the show as a whole, and it keeps the story and journey clear, even for those that didn't see it live.
In short, Fun Home is as perfect as any contemporary musical I've ever heard. With a bountiful amount of humour, heart, and heartbreak, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's work is as likely to make you laugh and engage as it is to make you weep and give you goosebumps. I know it did all of that for me. For God's sake, if you like musical theatre, get this cast recording. It's an example of everything musicals can, and should, be.