Monday, May 25, 2015

Playing the Crowd: Fun Home and Kiss Me, Kate

Cast members of Fun Home, at the Public Theatre. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Fun Home, the musical based on the memoir Alison Bechdel wrote in the form of a graphic novel, sold out during several runs at the Public Theatre and has recently opened to great acclaim on Broadway; it’s been showered with Tony nominations and a national tour is on the books. The audience I saw it with cheered every song – the confessional numbers, the self-actualization numbers, the mournful yet rousing protests against the repressed, homophobic society that dooms the narrator/protagonist Alison’s father to life as a closeted gay man, (mostly) remote from his children, and eventually to suicide. In the book Alison doesn’t know for sure whether her dad, Bruce, deliberately stepped in front of a truck just three months after she came out to her parents or if it was an accident. Lisa Kron, the play’s librettist, eliminates the ambiguity; her version of the material gets rid of all the mystery around the character, though perhaps, with a flesh-and-blood actor in the role, his motivations are at any rate less likely to stay hidden. Bechdel’s book is brainy and quirky, but I didn’t respond to it with the enthusiasm many other people felt; I found it a cool, unemotional reading experience. Kron strengthens the dramatic arc – Alison’s sexual and artistic coming of age and her coming to terms with her father’s elusiveness and the overlap in their desires and their personalities – and warms up the story. It’s practically a textbook example of how to put together a successful twenty-first-century musical play, with a sympathetic, forthright lesbian, an older-generation gay dad, a square peg who’s struggled all his life to fit into a round hole, and his put-upon wife, who’s spent all the years of their marriage trying to make him happy but whom he’s closed out. Alison, the narrator, who’s moving into middle age and trying to make sense of her mixed-up childhood – lived in a small Pennsylvania town where her father doubled as funeral home director and high-school English teacher – and her cataclysmic college years, is the ideal heroine for a contemporary liberal audience, while Bruce’s is the perfect symbolic tragedy for an age that wants to embrace sexual diversity and pummel prejudice against a homosexual lifestyle out of existence. You can’t object to the play’s values – but “values” aren’t a theatrical virtue. You might be put off, as I was, by the musical’s triteness and banality, and by the way it pushes the audience’s buttons.

The dramatic set-up recalls that of Christopher Durang’s great (also autobiographical) The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which is the drama of the narrator Matt’s efforts to bring his crazy Catholic family into some kind of coherent shape. In Fun Home – the title is Alison and her younger siblings’ abbreviation for “funeral home” and the name they’ve given their household – the protagonist is split in three. The narrator (Beth Malone) is around forty (though Malone looks about ten years younger) and writing/drawing her memoir. The flashbacks bring her back in contact with her eleven-year-old self (the appealing Sydney Lucas) and her eighteen-year-old self (Emily Skeggs, whose brassy-yet-vulnerable tone is too distinctly musical-comedy for my taste), the first blissfully unaware of what’s going on beneath the surface of her parents’ marriage – though she certainly picks up the tensions in it – the second discovering her sexuality and blindsided by her mother’s revelations about her father. In structural terms, the play is laid out cleverly, with clear points of intersection between the two kinds of flashbacks, and it’s smart of Kron and the director, Sam Gold, not to allow “Small Alison” to come across merely as a blueprint for “Middle Alison”; you can believe that the imaginative little girl grows into the experimental, fearless Oberlin undergrad without having to see the late-adolescent Alison contained whole within the not-quite-adolescent Alison. They make only one mistake in this regard: Small Alison sings a song about the first butch young woman she encounters, a delivery girl, and the way the kid thinks about her and even her diction seem false, rigged. (Not even a precocious eleven-year-old uses words like “swagger” and “bearing.”)

Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs (Photo: Jenny Anderson)
Bruce is played by Michael Cerveris, whose performances in the John Doyle Sweeney Todd revival and as Kurt Weill in Harold Prince’s Brechtian jukebox musical Lovemusik were tours de force. Cerveris’ attempts to find ways to convey Bruce’s tentativeness and detachment and discomfort in his own skin are admirable, but they feel academic rather than lived-in. He has one very fine moment, late in the musical, when he turns to grown-up Alison rather than Middle Alison – who has just come home from college with her first lover, Joan (Roberta Colindrez), in tow – and invites her out for a drive, and you can sense him reaching out for the connection with his daughter that he’s made only sporadically through her life and then inevitably shied away from. (And indeed that’s what he does now, on an evening that turns out to be the last one they’ll ever spend together.) Up to then, though we understand exactly how we’re meant to read Bruce’s behavior, Cerveris deliberately skirts around the character. What he’s trying for might just work with a better script or a better director; I don’t think either Kron or Gold gives him enough to work with. But it’s intriguing to watch the ways in which Malone tries to incorporate something like Cerveris’ recessive, covert presence into her own performance, though in Alison’s case her remoteness is a kind of spookily observant quality.

The performances that work best for me are Judy Kuhn’s as the mother, Helen, whose frustration with her marriage becomes a more and more articulate anger, and Colindrez’s as Joan, who has a different kind of quiet presence – sexy, almost feline, yet with a sensitivity that amounts to wisdom. (She watches so intently – first Alison, in her initial coming-out phase, and then Alison’s welcoming but perplexing family – that you wonder if Alison absorbed this trait during their relationship, since it’s clearly in her make-up by the time she’s writing her graphic novel.) What I think is hands down the worst element in the show is Jeanine Tesori’s music. I hated Tesori’s score for Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, but Violet, which Sutton Foster starred in on Broadway last season, was better; the country-western style of the music seemed to bring out a melodic strain that had been entirely missing from her earlier work. In Fun Home, once more she backs away from melody; the music is so unattractive – especially matched to Kron’s uninspired lyrics – that during most of the songs my mind started to wander. (I did laugh during the post-coital song where Middle Alison proclaims, “I want to major in Joan! / I want to major in sex with Joan!”) Why is it so hard to write a decent musical-theatre score these days? The Tesoris and Michael John LaChiusas and Jason Robert Browns make it seem almost like a lost art.

Anastasia Barzee in Kiss Me, Kate. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Kiss Me, Kate is such a splendid musical that you’d think that, cast right, it should practically play itself, yet Darko Tresnjak’s production at Hartford Stage is the second one I’ve seen in the past year that wears down the witty book by Bella and Sam Spewack and even the incomparable Cole Porter score with too damn much embroidery. (The other was last summer’s at Barrington Stage, which was way worse.) As Lilli Vanessi, the diva co-starring in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew opposite her ex-husband, Fred Graham – who is also the director of the show – Anastasia Barzee mugs too much, especially during “I Hate Men,” which has somehow become a target for hyperactive renditions that illustrate lyrics requiring no explication. When this Kate sings the cautionary line, “’T is he who’ll have the fun and thee the baby,” she gets the last word out in an elongated scream meant to suggest labor pains. Lois Lane (Megan Sikora) affects a grating voice like Jean Hagen’s in Singin’ in the Rain or Meg Tilly’s in Bullets Over Broadway. With both Barzee and Sikora, the vocal affectations get in the way of their musicality, as early as the quartet “We Open in Venice,” where they are joined by Fred (Mike McGowan) and Lois’ gambling swain Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes). Hanes’ stage-New Jersey accent adds nothing to his character, but otherwise he’s perfectly fine, and both he and Sikora are skillful dancers. McGowan is quite good when he resists Tresnjak’s obvious encouragement to overact, though there’s so much extraneous stage business during his big second-act number, “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” – his former lovers keep popping up in the windows of Alexander Dodge’s ingenious advent-calendar set to (again) act out what the lyrics could convey without any help – that the number becomes exhausting. I got tired, too, of all the dick jokes in “Tom, Dick or Harry,” which (like “I Hate Men”) makes unfortunate use of a nude male statue.

The production has its virtues, most of them supplied by Dodge’s scenic design and Peggy Hickey’s choreography and an exceptional dancing ensemble. The first-act opening, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” and the second-act opening, “Too Darn Hot,” are as good as one hopes, and they feature the talents of, respectively, Charity Angél Dawson (as Hattie) and James T. Lane (as Paul). Except for the appended adolescent sex humor, “Tom, Dick or Harry” is great fun, as are “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “Bianca.” Tony Lawson is too much as General Harrison Howell, Lilli’s pompous fiancé, but Joel Blum and Brendan Averett, as the two gangsters, win the audience over by legitimate means, and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is the deserved crowd-pleaser it always is. The crowd at Friday night’s performance was pleased throughout the evening, but the self-indulgence made me ornery, and with all that drum beating the show felt much longer than its allotted two hours and forty-five minutes.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment