Last weekend, I went to New York City with my family to see the 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Fun Home. It is performed at the Circle in the Square Theater, a unique auditorium where the seats surround the stage on all four sides. From the first song, the entire minimalistic set is visible to the audience. The orchestra is also in plain sight, as the theater does not have an orchestra pit. Only seven musicians and nine actors make up the entire orchestra and cast of this production.
The usual wow-factor induced by flashy costumes, huge casts, and grand sets, such as those in Wicked or Les Miserables, isn’t possible in a setting like the Circle in the Square. For this reason, I was slightly skeptical. How can these nine performers (three of whom are under 13 years old) create the same emotional impact as the full orchestras and 40-person casts of Aladdin or The Book of Mormon? Honestly, I wasn’t expecting very much.
Fortunately, my skepticism was utterly misguided. This show is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Based on a graphic memoir of the same name, it tells the story of a cartoonist named Alison Bechdel at three different ages as she struggles through complex family relationships and questions of identity that are both universally relatable and completely unique.
The intimacy of the tiny theater made me feel so connected to Alison. The show itself is intense and immersive, with 100 minutes of uninterrupted performance (there is no intermission). In that time, Fun Home answers big questions about what makes us who we are as well as small questions, like what it’s like to grow up in a family-owned funeral home. Humor is sprinkled expertly throughout the darkest scenes. Fun Home is a perfect eleven out of ten.
My favorite moment in the show is a song entitled “Changing My Major”, performed flawlessly by Emily Skeggs, who portrays college-age Alison. At first, this seems like a lighthearted number to make the audience laugh in the midst of such raw songs as “Helen’s Etude” and “Days and Days” (both performed by the remarkable Judy Kuhn). But really, even this gut-bustlingly funny song says so much about first love and what it feels like to finally find oneself.
In contrast, Michael Cerevis (who portrays Alison’s father, Bruce) sings a powerful ballad entitled “Edges of the World”, which is about what happens when you can’t find yourself in time. He earned a Tony Award for “Best Lead Actor in a Musical” for this role. The two songs bind past and future, then and now, which is a recurrent theme throughout the show.
Young Alison was played by Gabriella Pizzolo, a 12-year-old actress who already made her Broadway debut as the title role in Matilda. She truly blew me away. I don’t know how someone so young managed to portray a character this emotionally complex, but she was perfect. Her main number, “Ring of Keys”, made me think of myself as a 12-year-old girl, on the fine tightrope between staying a child and becoming a teenager. She reminded me of myself in many ways.
Broadway seems to be getting braver and braver these days. With edgy new musicals about identity such as Kinky Boots, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and now Fun Home, it seems like there is nothing Broadway won’t tackle. It is the epitome of personal expression. We must encourage this center for diversity by seeing shows that may be different than what we are used to seeing. There is so much out there to experience.
Overall, there isn’t much I can say for this show except you must see it for yourself. Fun Home helped me navigate muddy waters in my own life as I watched Alison navigate hers. In the words of Young Alison, “Come here, hey right here, right now. Listen to me”. Buy tickets as soon as possible and wait for this event-of-a-lifetime to take hold. Trust me, it will never let go.