Life is a Ring of Keys

On Saturday, I saw Fun Home on Broadway and the Encores! concert production of Zorba. They both had amazing casts. I wish they both had amazing texts.

Fun Home is a musical based on the autobiographical comic of the same name by Alison Bechdel, best known for the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the Bechdel test. The musical (and I assume the original book) is centered around Alison and her father. As she discovers her own sexuality, she also discovers her father has been leading a closeted second life all along. I may be wrong about this, but Fun Home may be the first Broadway musical with a lesbian leading character.

After raves at the Public, it comes to Broadway with such expectations so high that they are essentially impossible to meet, much less exceed. If the show fails to run, it will be due to the inevitable backlash. And that would be a shame because the show is terrific. It deserves to run an indecently long time.

I can quibble that Jeanne Tesori’s score is not always up to the task. However, she comes through for the big moments, most notably the big numbers for Alison’s mother, Medium Alison and Small Allison, “Days and Days,” “Changing My Major,” and “Ring of Keys.” The Partridge Family pastiche, “Raincoat of Love”, is ridiculously catchy and, in context, devastating. I can also quibble that the show may not be best served staged in the round. (I assume this is a decision forced on the production because they needed to find a Broadway house that was both the right size and available. The production at the Public, which I hadn’t seen, was not in the round.) I may feel this way, though, because my seat was right behind the board where they mount the fresnels. Whenever they needed a door, it was right in my line-of-sight, blocking the action.

The book, though, is top notch. The scenes in college are awkward, embarrassingly true, but also, as seen in retrospect by modern day Alison, painfully funny. The non-linear narrative with three Alisons at three different ages pays off beautifully. This is one of those cases where the order in which everything makes the most sense is not chronological.

Michael Cerveris is fine as the father. I’m not really a big fan of his work. Judy Kuhn is wonderful. She finds nuance in what otherwise might be seem a stock role. Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and Sydney Lucas as Alison, Medium Alison, and Small Alison are everything you could hope for. (Seriously, see this show before they start casting replacements.)

By the time Sydney Lucas has finished “Ring of Keys”, as the audience is clapping their hands off, the only thought going through my mind is, “OMG, I just saw a Tony winning performance.” She’s up for Best Featured Actress in a Musical against, among others, Judy Kuhn and Emily Skeggs. They’re all wonderful, but Sydney Lucas is the first among equals, playing not really young Alison, but the 43 year old Alison’s recollection of her. Wow.

I’m just going to leave this here. It’s Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” at the Drama Desk Awards last year. Scarily, it’s even better than this in context:

If Fun Home was mostly a triumph, Zorba was mostly not. What they both have in common is absurdly good casting. Never underestimate the ability of a good cast to make anything enjoyable.

Zorba is based on the novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. A young American, Nikos, heads off to Crete because he has inherited a mine. Along the way, he meets Zorba, this larger-than-life figure, who Shows Him How To Live. In the meantime, they have romantic relationships with a widow and a French innkeeper that ultimately underscore the show’s theme (and opening number) that “Life Is (what you do while you’re waiting to die).”

I’ve always been partial to that opening number. The original Broadway cast performed it on the Tony’s in 1969:

Santino Fantana does about as well as possible as Nikos, the bland American cipher who goes to Crete. John Turturro is a force of nature as Zorba and sings surprisingly well, and mostly keeps up with the dancing. Marin Mazzie sings wonderfully as “The Leader” but is hamstrung by either the concert adaptation or the direction (probably both.) Zoë Wanamaker gives the performance of the show as the French innkeeper becoming, against all odds, a fully formed character on stage (and with very little support from the text). The show is also filled with a lot of very intense Mediterranean-looking men who are all in great shape and dance incredibly well. These are most of the production’s chief pleasures.

And they can be quite pleasurable. Going to Encores! always reminds me of what I’m giving up when I watch most modern Broadway musicals. There’s a lot to be said for a large orchestra and full chorus that goes into parts. If the text of the show fails to measure up to that of Fun Home, it’s also realized at a scale that Fun Home can’t even conceive of. (BTW, I’m not saying that I want a production of “Fun Home* with a large chorus. That would not go well.)

The score is not among Kander and Ebb’s best. It has a lot of filler. "No Boom Boom” is just embarrassing. (Last year at Encores!, I sat through “Boom Boom” from Little Me. That was also pretty embarrassing. Now, I’m wondering songs from musicals should just not use the word “boom” in the sense of an explosion. Jonathan Larsen avoided it, IIRC, when he wrote tick, tick… BOOM!)

The book is seems to be mostly Zorba holding forth on How To Live LIFE and nameless Greek men sexually harassing the widow. I assume she falls in love with Nikos because he doesn’t sexually harass her. However, as is the way of musical theater, they fall in love in under a second and pretty much fall into bed with each other the first time they are alone with each other. (Medium Alison and Joan in Fun Home do pretty much the same thing in Fun Home, though, just with better songs and dialogue.)

The harassment is never portrayed as acceptable. (You go, 1969!) However, it is portrayed as inevitable. This feels really clichéd. None of the men get more than one characteristic. If you’re a man in the chorus, it’s inevitably macho bluster. This is a very limited and stereotypical view of Greek men. (I have to think the original Kazantzakis novel was more varied in its characterizations?)

Some of this is the fault of Walter Bobbie’s direction. It’s efficient. There are a couple nifty bits of staging. However, he never seems to get past coordinating people and furniture around on stage. Also, he unmoors the show from the framework of a community telling each other stories. This makes nonsense of Marin Mazzie’s character and turns the show into a set of barely connected events.

Anyway, there are telegraphed deaths and senseless deaths. However, through it all, you accept what happens without rancor because Life Is What You Do While You’re Waiting To Die. Curtain Falls.

The whole thing is so well performed, it’s hard not to have a good time. But, no, Zorba is not a show that has stood the test of time.

It’s too early to say for Fun Home, of course. I hope, though, that we’ll at least look back on it kindly and, if nothing else, be the show where Sydney Lucas broke out.


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