"My dad and I were exactly alike ... nothing alike," sings Alison in "Fun Home," the extraordinary, disturbing and delightful chamber musical at the Public Theater.
Based on Alison Bechdel's 2006 best-selling graphic memoir, this 100-minute treasure of invention captures the certainty and ambiguity of growing up in an amusing yet mysterious small-town Pennsylvania family. After coming out as a lesbian, Alison -- played here by three terrific actresses of different ages -- learns that Bruce, her adored, difficult, increasingly erratic father, was a closeted gay man who liked, among others, teenage boys.
Playwright-lyricist Lisa Kron, composer Jeanine Tesori and director Sam Gold create a father who is not as gnarly-dark as the one Bechdel, a Vermont-based cartoonist, said "treats children like furniture and furniture like children." Yet a more loving father (played with an exquisite blend of enthusiasms and contradictions by Michael Cerveris) never sugarcoats the wrenching differences of growing up gay in two close generations.
The story goes back and forth in time, skillfully guided by Gold through David Zinn's acutely observed sets and costumes. Mostly, we are in the old mansion that Bruce, a high school English teacher, restored with obsessive tenderness. But we also shift easily to the inherited family business, a funeral home he calls fun home, where Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) and her brothers fantasize about making ghoulish TV commercials, and to Oberlin, where Medium Alison (Alexandra Socha) tentatively explores both the Gay Union and a gay union.
Watching over her young selves is narrator-cartoonist Alison (Beth Malone), with cropped hair and total comfort in her grown-up self. Meanwhile, the mother and community-theater actress (the deeply effective Judy Kuhn) knows what she knows and, as reward, gets the best song.
Tesori, composer of the haunting "Violet" and artistic director of the smashing Off-Broadway series at Encores last summer, finds just the right internal voices for conflicted moods, with unpredictable melodies over a strong back beat and repeated rhythms.
Kron, former member of the much-admired Five Lesbian Brothers and sensitive author of "Well" on Broadway, knows precisely how to mix and match the emotional demands of a musical and the uncompromising brilliance of Bechdel's memoir. This is a collaboration to cherish.
WHAT “Fun Home”
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $81.50-$91.50; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Intimate yet major new musical.