Most of “Fun Home,” the shimmering new musical based on Alison Bechdel’s ground-breaking graphic memoir, takes place in a funeral home.
This story about a young woman coming to terms with her father’s probable suicide is suffused with death, not as a source of despair but of inspiration.
The 2006 book exploded the possibilities of the graphic format. The musical by composer Jeanine Tesori and writer Lisa Kron -- with an enormous assist from Sam Gold’s inventive, sensitive staging -- lifts the story to a spectral plane without ever losing its grounding in the exurban Pennsylvania setting of Bechdel’s Funeral Home in Beech Creek, 200 miles west of New York City.
We meet Alison at three ages. Sydney Lucas plays her as a loving child in thrall to her closeted gay father.
Alexandra Socha is the teenage Alison beginning to discern the secrets stashed in every corner of the Victorian house her father has restored with devotion verging on the fanatical. In college she also makes a not altogether surprising discovery about her own desires. (Roberta Colindrez is ideal as Alison’s knowing first girlfriend.)
Beth Malone is Alison as narrator, now a graphic artist who has embraced her homosexuality just as her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris in a performance of powerful delicacy and pathos) commits the ultimate act of self-denial.
The three irresistible actresses frequently share David Zinn’s set, which suggests over-the-top home that doubles as the family business. Tesori and Kron also pay attention to the impact of Bruce’s shadow-life on his marriage to Helen (Judy Kuhn, perfectly cast, though in the show’s most underwritten part).
The book and lyrics bring us into Alison’s life much as the drawn images of Bechdel’s book do. Tesori’s music injects the show with spiritual leavening. It’s closer in tone to her heartfelt Tony Kushner collaboration, “Caroline, or Change” than the genre-spanning “Violet,” with its pastiche score.
But the composer can still strut her comic stuff, as in a hilarious number when young Alison and her friends create a singing commercial for the funeral home. It’s a reminder how full of life this house of death becomes, even in memory.
Through Nov. 17 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-967-7555; http://www.publictheater.org. Rating: ****1/2
Just $20 will buy a seat to “Luce,” the new play by JC Lee at the small Claire Tow Theater above the Beaumont at Lincoln Center. It’s a play with a lot of challenging ideas from a writer who hasn’t quite sorted out what to do with them all.
Luce (Okieriete Onaodowan) is the Congo-born adopted son of Amy (Marin Hinkle) and Peter (Neal Huff), who are smug, touchy-feely white liberals.
Their comforting image of Luce as a high school academic and sports star begins to unravel when a teacher (Sharon Washington), alerted by a violent essay he’s written, searches his locker and finds fireworks inside.
Is his cover story true? What about the ex-girlfriend who tells Amy she doesn’t really know her own son? Is Luce a bad seed?
Lee raises these questions without digging very deep into any of them, never mind offering answers. “Luce” isn’t a mystery, just a drama without resolution.
But the playwright couldn’t have dreamed up a better showcase, with this fine cast and concise staging by May Adrales that never lets any question linger too long.
Through Nov. 17 at the Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-362-6200; http://www.lct3.org. Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on music and Ryan Sutton on dining.