Friday, May 1, 2015

New Broadway Musicals—"Fun Home" and "It Shoulda Been You"

Fun Home
Book & lyrics by Lisa Kron; music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Sam Gold
Opened April 19, 2015
Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY

It Shoulda Been You
Book & lyrics by Brian Hargrove; music by Barbara Anselmi
Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Opened April 14, 2015
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Lucas and Cerveris in Fun Home (photo: Joan Marcus)
That there's never been a musical quite like Fun Home is both its blessing and curse. Based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic memoir about her dysfunctional family, Fun Home has a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, which pull the show in different directions, derailing its effectiveness at every turn.

Alison, a 40-year old graphic artist, puts her life into words and pictures; flashing back to her youth, Fun Home shows a nine-year-old Alison, her brothers and her parents: Bruce, their closeted father, a high-school teacher, predatory pedophile and funeral home director; and their mother Helen, whose coldness underlines her inability to deal with Bruce's behavior. A third Alison is a 19-year-old Oberlin College freshman, unsure of her own sexuality, who's befriended by—and soon becomes lover to—headstrong Joan; when she brings Joan home to meet her parents, Alison forces them to deal with her lesbianism head-on, causing her emotionally tortured father to make a fateful decision that haunts his daughter to this day.

For the most part, Kron's book adeptly distills Alison's coming to terms with her sexuality and her complicated relationship with her parents, even if motivation and psychology are often hazy. If all three Allisons are adroitly drawn—and played by three wonderfully individual actresses, youngster Sydney Lucas, college-age Emily Skeggs and adult Beth Malone—her family is more cursorily sketched, with Helen quite a blank (poor Judy Kuhn has little to do) and Bruce maddeningly indistinct. 

Therefore, it's to the credit of that incredible chameleon of an actor Michael Cerveris that Bruce becomes the most sympathetic character onstage; the quietly commanding Cerveris even does wonders with Bruce's climactic song, an aria of lament and suffering that would lie there inert without the actor's great skill and compassion.

And that's the weakness of Fun Home: Tesori's score. The small ensemble plays beautifully, and when the music underscores the action, its restraint is dramatically effective. But when the characters break into song, there's a lack of variety, melody and emotion that prevent the numbers from soaring; similarly, Kron's competent lyrics would work better as dialogue, instead of being set to Tesori's music. With a couple of compelling exceptions—namely the kids' crowd-pleasing anthem, "Come to the Fun Home," and Bruce's aforementioned final song—the musical numbers rarely advance the story or provide any insight into these characters. 

Even with Sam Gold's endlessly resourceful direction on David Zinn's gloriously lived-in Victorian house set, Fun Home is fatally unmusical.

Howard and Boggess in It Shoulda Been You (photo: Joan Marcus)
Basically a song-filled sitcom, It Shoulda Been You is the Broadway equivalent of madcap shows like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, its farcical wedding day providing 100 minutes of hokey but harmless fun, thanks to a bunch of veteran comic troupers.

On the morning of Rebecca Steinberg's wedding to Brian Howard at a posh hotel, mania reigns among those present: Rebecca's big-boned sister Jenny, handling last-minute details for their domineering Jewish mother Judy, whom their father Murray avoids when he can; Brian's WASPy parents, alcoholic Georgette and dull George; maid of honor Annie and best man Greg, Rebecca and Brian's closest friends, respectively; wedding planner Albert, cleaning up messes; hotel workers Mimsy and Walt, commenting sardonically on the proceedings; and Rebecca's ex, Marty Kaufman, who arrives to implore her not to marry.

Slamming-door farce is not book writer Brian Hargrove's strong suit, so he concentrates on tired Jew/Gentile jokes, cracks about Jenny's weight, and the inevitable "gay reveal" so in vogue right now. Hargrove's banal "moon"/"June" lyrics and Barbara Anselmi's interchangeable songs don't help either, but at least their director (and Hargrove's significant other) David Hyde Pierce knows all about great timing, so the show ends up resembling an actual comedy. Pierce's talented cast also makes the most of its chances to shine, especially the ladies.

Tyne Daly is the ultimate overbearing Jewish mother as Judy, Lisa Howard is a funny and touching Jenny, Harriet Harris is an hilarious Georgette, and the always delectable Sierra Boggess shows off masterly comic chops and an exquisite singing voice as Rebecca. Her showstopping "A Little Bit Less Than" proves that, even in an ensemble, some performers are more equal than others.

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