NEW YORK — “Fun Home,” the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s extraordinary graphic memoir, gets off to a choppy start, takes unnecessary musical detours and is staged in a rough-hewn style that sometimes seems more accidental than intentional.
But the show, which is having its world premiere here at the Public Theater, succeeds not despite these flaws but in large measure because of them. Bechdel’s ironically self-aware and inwardly searching sensibility is honored by a musical that isn’t afraid to reveal its awkward side.
True, Bechdel’s book, a lesbian’s coming-out story complicated by a closeted gay father’s tragedy, has a sure-footedness that the production lacks. (The verbal precision and straightforward visual charm of this sophisticated cartoon work of self-analysis are dazzling on the page.) But the musical has an exploratory playfulness that suits an author more at home with provisional truths than definitive statements.
The show also has a company of actors who, under the direction of Sam Gold, can embody the nerdy individuality and oddball grace of the characters in Bechdel’s story. These performers add eccentric color to the book by Lisa Kron, a playwright whose own work (“2.5 Minute Ride,” “Well”) often has its own autobiographical roots.
Jeanine Tesori, a master of musical pastiche working with a broad palette here, composed the music and collaborated on the lyrics with Kron. “Fun Home” has a few splashy let-me-entertain-you numbers, including a “Partridge Family” homage invoking the author’s childhood era. But the work is sui generis, as much a play as a musical and not at all concerned with conforming to the expectations of either form.
This shouldn’t come as a shock. How many musicals have you seen with a lesbian protagonist? This is pioneering territory, and Kron, who came into her own as a writer with the troupe “The Five Lesbian Brothers,” and Tesori, who composed the score for the envelope-pushing Tony Kushner musical “Caroline, or Change,” grant themselves the freedom to clear their own path.
Three actresses take on the central role of Alison. Beth Malone plays adult Alison, a lesbian cartoonist sifting through her memories for a deeper understanding of the family mysteries that shaped her identity for good and ill. Alexandra Socha plays Medium Alison, a college student coming to terms with her sexual orientation and growing independence from her parents. And Sydney Lucas plays Small Alison, a girl growing up in a small Pennsylvania town with a father who’s curiously absent even when tyrannically present.
Michael Cerveris, a truly indispensable Broadway talent, takes on the role of Alison’s problematic father, Bruce, a high school English teacher, part-time mortician and fanatical restorer of his family’s historic house. Obsessed with surfaces, he strives to make everything look picture perfect, but beneath the artfully arranged exterior is a deeply conflicted interior.
His secrets are manifold: Bruce, a closeted homosexual, is drawn to teenage boys. And he leaves his family an even bigger mystery to solve. Four months after Alison tells her parents she’s a lesbian, he is hit by a truck under circumstances that suggest suicide.
Adult Alison revisits her past in a manner that recalls the narrator of Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time”: She is simultaneously remembering and creating a work of art around the remembrance. The difference is that instead of exploding the boundaries of literary fiction, Alison (or Al, as she is called by her father) is expanding the possibilities of both graphic storytelling and the contemporary memoir.
“Caption: My dad and I were exactly alike,” Alison announces to the audience. “Caption: My dad and I were nothing alike,” she declares a moment later.
These seemingly contradictory statements are of course both true, and the musical proceeds to measure Alison’s ambivalent relationship to her father, whose unsettled identity keeps everyone unsettled around him.
Alison’s mother, portrayed with a haunting lyricism by Judy Kuhn, is a more peripheral figure, a dissatisfied spouse signaling her distress from the sidelines while trying to keep the household together. Yet the subtitle of Bechdel’s book, “A Family Tragicomic,” comes through loud and clear.
Alison’s personal story intimates the personal stories of those around her. Bechdel’s generosity, her lack of narcissism, is nowhere more evident than in the rippling effect of her storytelling.
Gold’s casting and scenic designer David Zinn’s costumes create striking visual characterizations. These are characters you may not have encountered before on stage, but you’ve seen them on campuses and in shopping malls — something in their dress and demeanor marking them as unconventional, as “other.”
That difference is a source of the show’s good humor, much of which is derived from the “Addams Family"-like aspects of Alison’s upbringing. She lives in an old mansion, plays with her brothers in coffins and can’t abide all those things girls are supposed to like, such as frilly dresses and flowery wallpaper.
“Fun Home” begins in a hectic muddle, as though the creators weren’t quite sure how to enter a tale that keeps doubling back on itself, that treats time kaleidoscopically. The staging is smudgy at times, the focus tentative, and the lively musical numbers involving Alison and her brothers seem designed to distract us from the narrative confusion.
But the show is rescued by a wayward honesty that only deepens as the story unfolds. When medium Alison falls in love with a woman at college, she has a song in which she sings, “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.” Here, the sensibilities of Kron and Tesori mesh perfectly with Bechdel’s effervescent candor.
There have been plenty of new American musicals better put together than “Fun Home,” but I can’t think of one in recent years that has touched me as much with its tender, ironic and courageous vulnerability.