After the actors had all taken their bows to thunderous applause at the San Francisco premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's musical Fun Home, Carole Shorenstein Hays -- the flamboyant theater producer and owner of the newly refurbished Curran Theater -- handed a microphone to Alison Bechdel and essentially demanded that she speak.
Bechdel, whose 2006 autobiographical graphic novel of the same title was the basis for the evening's entertainment, spoke graciously and with great poise both about the production and our country's current political situation. She was brief and made no grand statements. Yet there was something about the way the 56-year old graphic novelist carried herself that was so vivid and human, it threw into relief many of the problems and tensions within Tesori and Kron's lovely but flawed attempt to give theatrical life to Bechdel's actual life. It rarely happens, but the real thing shone brighter than the entertainment.
Fun Home is an ambitiously structured drama, taking on the stories of three versions of "Alison" all at once: the child who intuits her father Bruce’s sexual preferences and finds secret solace with him; the young adult desperately in need of her family to recognize that she has, in coming out, become a fuller, slightly different version of herself; and the mature graphic novelist struggling to give shape to her father's sudden suicide at 44.
Memory plays are a notoriously difficult genre, and Fun Home loses shape and focus every time the adult Alison takes the lead. There's just not much for her to do except comment on the action. Worse, this unbalances and undercuts the force of the other two narratives, sometimes in trite ways.
After a wrenching moment in which Bruce desperately tries to impress a member of the Allegheny Historical Society with the restoration of his Victorian house and the picture-book perfection of his family, the adult Alison says, “And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I… became a lesbian cartoonist.” The narratorial distance might work as a caption in a graphic novel. But on stage it comes off as a diminishment of actual pain. It turns suicide into a snappy one-liner.
This tension between commentary and drama is not just a problem of the narration, but also present between Tesori's music and Kron's book. Kron is a fascinating writer, capable of taking unpromising dramatic ideas and weaving them into powerful, if lopsided, plays. (Her satisfying In the Wake premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2010). Yet Tesori's songs are often an incomplete realization of the complexity of Kron’s tougher, sharper artistic instincts.
There’s a brutal scene in which Bruce seduces his children’s babysitter and family handyman, Roy, while Alison’s mother Helen plays the piano in the next room. When Roy hesitates, Bruce snaps, “Don’t worry about her.” It’s a cutting line and a slick setup. Tesori’s music (“Helen’s Étude”) starts off in a promising manner, as Bruce and Helen sing in counterpoint. But at a little more than a minute and with the intrusion of Roy’s rather pedestrian observations and voice (“I know this type, this type of married guy”) the song is more of an explanation than a deepening of what has become a savage familial situation.
It’s not that this is beyond Tesori’s abilities. The lovely post-coital ode “Changing My Major” takes a beautiful stage image -- Alison admiring her first girlfriend Joan’s sleeping body -- and lets us revel in her sexual awakening and the joy and love that it inspires. As with the best of musical theater, you want to stay in the moment and song forever.
Yet most of best scenes occur when the piece is less of a musical, and more of a play with bits and pieces of music woven though it -- a trip to New York where Bruce sings Alison to sleep and then slips away to hunt for anonymous sex; an impromptu father-daughter concert of goofy songs during a visit home; and a car ride where Bruce offers to take Alison to a bar where “folks like, you know…” but can’t finish his thought when she reminds him that she’s not 21. Instead of show-stopping numbers that often feel like expressions of strength, here the music catches just how fragile family ties can be.
Fun Home has become a beloved piece -- it won five Tony Awards -- and when it succeeds you can understand why. We have so much to lose when parents die, when the mirror of family is wrested away and there is no one left to reflect the future for us. There are, sadly, some echoes in the work of the present political moment. On opening night in San Francisco, you could feel the audience embrace them: what does it mean to lose a world, even if it was an imperfect one?
That’s all to the good. But I think the piece misplays its strengths. Tesori’s music is tidy where it should be a fiery mess, and the traces of Broadway conventions (a reliance on pop pastiche and crowd-pleasing numbers) mute Kron’s shifty writing. And that brings us back to Bechdel. Drafted to speak at a moment of high drama, she was simply present, which is a gift that Fun Home the musical only intermittently rises to and achieves. Still, sometimes the imperfect is more than enough.
'Fun Home' runs through Sunday, Feb. 19 at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, click here.