Critic's Notebook

Take note of these four musicals for a Tony, then vote for 'Fun Home'

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
Broadway has several notable musicals in line for a Tony this season, but 'Fun Home' deserves the award

Sometimes a musical finds its ideal home away from home.

"Fun Home," the show based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel about growing up as a lesbian with a closeted gay funeral director father, opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2013 and became one of the most acclaimed downtown sensations in recent memory.

"Downtown," defined less by ZIP Code than sensibility, is traditionally where shows of this nonconformist stripe get their turn in the spotlight, away from the commercial pressures of Broadway. Instead of Tonys, they win Obies, several of which were picked up by the creative team of "Fun Home," which had the additional of honor of being a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year.

This spring, the show moved uptown to Broadway's Circle in the Square, a risky proposition for a number of reasons. Lesbian coming-of-age musicals aren't exactly a staple of the commercial theater, and Circle in the Square is a notoriously challenging house, with its thrust stage setting up all kinds of in-the-round sightline traps.

Yet Sam Gold's staging of "Fun Home" works even better uptown than it did downtown. The perceptual shifts imposed by the venue reinforce the perceptual shifts imposed by Lisa Kron's book, which employs three actors of different ages to play Alison, the lesbian cartoonist trying to puzzle out the mystery of her father's apparent suicide.

All those fears that the show wouldn't have sufficient mainstream appeal have at last been put to rest. The avalanche of Broadway raves obviously didn't hurt. But "Fun Home" has caught fire for a simple reason: It is deeply moving without being in the least sentimental or pandering.

"Otherness," let the record once again show, goes out the window when empathy for our confounding common humanity is stirred by artists unafraid of complexity. Apparently, emotionally rich and resonant storytelling is all that's needed for theatergoers, gay or straight, to lay down their defenses and identify with a stranger.

A Tony win for best musical would be a fitting coda to this theatrical season's most inspiring narrative. But here's where things get complicated. Although few would describe this as a banner year for Broadway, it actually hasn't been a bad period for musicals, despite the foundering of the multimillion-dollar Sting vessel "The Last Ship" and the quick demise of "Honeymoon in Vegas."

"Hamilton," already canonized as an instant classic, opened at the Public Theater in February and would likely have swept the Tonys had it moved to Broadway on a quicker timetable. But now that the Lin-Manuel Miranda rap musical about the Founding Fathers has delayed its opening till August, "Fun Home" is in a tight race with "An American in Paris," the dance-musical based on the 1951 Oscar-winning film, and "Something Rotten!," which just may be the funniest musical comedy to come around since "The Book of Mormon."

Hopeless optimist that I am, I believe that artistic merit will prevail and that "Fun Home" will squeak out the win. But many Broadway insiders are giving the edge to "An American in Paris," which was directed and choreographed by the Royal Ballet's Christopher Wheeldon. A national (and no doubt highly lucrative) tour has already been announced, giving it a built-in Tony advantage. (Out-of-town producers, a sizable bloc of voters, are hardly blind to their own financial interests.)

"An American in Paris" is the perfect commodity musical, a mass-market offering with high-end packaging. It has a nostalgia-oozing title, raising the pulse of Gene Kelly fans everywhere. It doesn't need big-name actors to sell tickets (Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, the stars of the production, are well known in the dance world, though they're hardly what's drawing the suburban masses to the Palace Theatre).

The selection of songs from the George and Ira Gershwin songbook will be familiar to anyone over 50. And the early postwar Parisian backdrop (impressionistically realized through swirling scrims and antique mirrors) provides scenic designer Bob Crowley an opportunity to create a visual feast.

The movie reveals its age through the forced wisecracks and plot contrivances of Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay. (It survives through Gene Kelly's choreography and the way director Vincente Minnelli wields the charisma of his cast.) The musical's book by Craig Lucas is more sophisticated on the level of character and historical context, though the amorous story line is still tangled in places. Wheeldon, more interested in how it all looks, doesn't seem to mind that the plot seems to be sorting itself out on the fly.

The performers, most of them cast because of their balletic prowess and singing competence, have all the right moves but no more depth than catalog models. As dramatically choppy as it is gracefully staged, this is the kind of musical that invites you to open your eyes and dim your brain.

"Something Rotten!" certainly doesn't make intellectual demands on its audience at the St. James Theatre, but it's a tickling delight nonetheless. Written by Karey Kirkpatrick, John O'Farrell and Wayne Kirkpatrick and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the show, set in late 16th century London, is a sendup of the era's theatrical infighting and a dizzying parody of contemporary Broadway musicals.

Nick Bottom (Brian d'Arcy James) and his brother Nigel (John Cariani) are toiling in Renaissance England in the shadow of superstar Shakespeare (a hilariously preening Christian Borle). Desperate to hit the theatrical jackpot, Nick consults Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), a soothsayer who predicts that the not-yet-invented form of the musical will be even bigger than the Bard.

This psychic with static on the wires then proceeds to provide all kinds of mixed-up creative advice, setting in motion a show-within-the-show that is like a cross between "Hamlet" and "Spamalot," as imagined by an old Gypsy dancer on an acid trip.

The material in the wrong hands could come off as inane, but Nicholaw, who co-directed and choreographed "The Book of Mormon," found the most comically adroit hands for each of the principal roles. James, Cariani, Borle and Oscar, along with Brooks Ashmanskas as a Puritan closet case determined to close the theaters, bring such delirious originality to their work that even the show's few dud gags go off with a bang.

The fourth musical in contention for the Tony this year, "The Visit," starring her Broadway majesty Chita Rivera, doesn't deserve to be completely overlooked. But this long-aborning musical adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play, with a book by Terrence McNally and a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (the legendary duo behind "Cabaret," Chicago" and a handful of near-miss classics), hasn't yet coalesced at the Lyceum Theatre, marking a rare directorial defeat for the ingeniously inventive John Doyle.

Everything, however, has come together in Gold's superbly acted production of "Fun Home," which admittedly was a little rough around the edges at the Public. Not anymore. All of the Alisons (Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs and Sydney Lucas) are ideally cast. Judy Kuhn, as Alison's distant mother, is heartbreaking when she gets the chance to explain why she went along with her semi-sham marriage. And Michael Cerveris, as Alison's volatile father, delivers one of the most multilayered performances I've ever seen in a musical.

Kron, a vital American playwright ("Well," "2.5 Minute Ride"), has done her best work to date here — and that's saying something. Jeanine Tesori, respecting the chamber nature of the theatrical experience yet raising the musical pulse when needed, is a dramatist's composer par excellence. As in her collaboration with Tony Kushner on "Caroline, or Change," she finds the orchestral voice of "Fun Home" through the writing — the words (and images) guiding the musical's shifting moods.

"An American in Paris" will be a box-office juggernaut even if it doesn't win the Tony for best musical. Awarding the prize to "Fun Home," on the other hand, will not only boost its touring prospects but will also validate originality, risk-taking and excellence on Broadway — and that's something you can't put a price tag on.

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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