I already thought that Fun Home was the best new musical of the year in 2013, when it opened at the Public Theater. It’s hard to imagine that its Broadway transfer, and transformation, will not make it the best of this season as well. I say “transformation” even though in most ways it’s nearly a replica: The librettist Lisa Kron has perhaps cut or tightened a few lines of dialogue, and the composer Jeanine Tesori, apart from excising one charming but redundant little song (“Al for Short”), has made only the kind of changes a fanatic would notice. Fun Home is still basically what it was when I reviewed it in 2013: the story, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic memoir, of a lesbian cartoonist trying in middle age to understand her father, who killed himself shortly after revealing to her that he, too, was gay. Back then I called it “hilarious and crushing,” and it remains so now. Maybe less hilarious and more crushing.
The noticeable changes are only two. One is the casting. Alison is portrayed not only at age 43, looking back on the disaster, but as a college student at 19, when it happened, and as a 9-year-old struggling to understand why she and her father were different from other daughters and dads. Emily Skeggs, an understudy in the Public production, now plays the so-called Medium Alison, flowering into her sexuality at college just as her father implodes into his. And the boys who played Alison’s little brothers at the Public, presumably having grown too big for their roles, have been suitably replaced. Happily, Sydney Lucas, even though she, too, appears to have grown quite a bit, remains as Small Alison. She’s sensational in what may be the most unusual part ever written for a child, with its pain and intelligence and nascent lesbian yearning. In the gorgeous “Ring of Keys,” for instance, she sings about the moment in which she understands that she has something in common with a swaggering, short-haired “old-school butch” deliverywoman she sees at a diner. Take that, Annie Warbucks!
It’s not quite right to say that the rest of the cast is unchanged; the experience of revisiting these characters after a year away has deepened their performances. Beth Malone, as grown-up Alison, seems more fully engaged in the action, not just a tortured observer of it. Medium Alison’s college crush, Joan, once again embodied by the droll Roberta Colindrez, is even sexier now; she would make almost anyone come out. Joel Perez, with three small roles — including two different young men the father tries to seduce — nails all of them. (He’s also a hoot as the bespangled lead singer in a Partridge Family takeoff called “Raincoat Made of Love.”) And then there are the parents. Michael Cerveris as the father and Judy Kuhn as the mother continue to give heartbreaking performances of titanic and intimate scale, respectively. Familiarity has made them seem even more like a family.
Even so, these are subtle alterations. The only change that’s as instantly visible as it is consequential is the venue. The director Sam Gold has staged this version of Fun Home in Circle in the Square’s full-round (or really full-lozenge) arrangement. It’s the best use of this often awkward space I’ve ever seen — or, rather, felt. Not only is the audience, from most seats, much closer to the action than it was at the Public, but the action also seems to exist more fully in relationship to itself. You may as a result miss some faces at crucial moments, but the tradeoff is worth it. Instead of the earlier production’s flat, cartoonlike tableaux, unavoidable on a shallow proscenium stage, the mise en scène (David Zinn is the designer) is more sculptural and thus more emotional.
I would have thought “more emotional” to be an impossibility with Fun Home. But just see what Gold does with the stage’s traps toward the end, as pieces of the Bechdels’ beautiful house go plummeting down dark holes. Now even the voids are speaking: They become emblems of the impossibility of recapturing, let alone rebuilding, the past. This might be too devastating to face were it not for the fact that the reemergence of Fun Home on Broadway also contradicts it.
Fun Home is at Circle in the Square.