CARTOONIST ALISON BECHDEL’S GRAPHIC NOVEL IS A BOLD MUSICAL
‘FUN HOME’ TELLS A FAMILY’S STORY WITH HEART AND SONG, THIS IS A INSPIRATIONAL NEW AMERICAN MUSICAL
The Mt View stage is the perfect funeral home for an engaging new musical. FUN HOME by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (lyrics and book) won rave reviews and the 2015 Tony for Best Musical. The story is based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The production is inspiring, moving and wonderfully funny and dark. FUN HOME is now on stage at the Mt View Center of the Arts through October 28th, and it is not what you expect in your mainstream musical, taking place in a funeral home with a young family growing up. Director Robert Kelley says “Based on the extraordinary autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home centers on a father/daughter relationship in a dysfunctional family. Its themes of sexual identity repressed and released are universal. I hope Fun Home will help more of us see the light.”
The cast is stunning and this restaging of a musical originally set in the round, transferred well to a proscenium arch stage including the set pieces designed by Andrea Becert. Three versions of Alison appear in the story and two clever young actors share the role of the youngest version of Alison played by Lisa Gold and Ruth Keith. Erin Kommor plays the college version of Alison and is wonderful in her solo “Changing my Major.”
Saturday night Gold and small Alison easily brought the sold out crowd to tears in the dynamic number “Ring of Keys” were she realizes she is gay. Present day Alison played by the keen Moira Stone explains a caption as “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, but he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.” A common subject for millennial writers is the dysfunctional family. The many arches of this haunting musical is the aspect it brings to this personal story that explores the individual experience with emotional wounds that will make us think about our own lives.
Alison’s father Bruce played impressively by James Lloyd Reynolds sings “Edges of the World” and brings the house down. He is an English high school teacher and manages a funeral home that he has his kids call “fun home”. The marvelous youth cast adds pure pleasure to the opening of the story with their show stopping “Come to the Fun Home,” young Alison and her two brothers Chris and John are played by group of alternating teens Jack Barrett, Dylan Curtis, Billy Hutton and Oliver Yellin who bring the dark musical some high end charm and smiles. Alison meets her first girl friend Joan while away at college played by the charming Ayelet Firstenberg who helps her new friend to deal with her father.
Composer Tesori and lyricist Kron have done something extraordinary staging cartoonist Bechdel's graphic memoir into an amazing memory play that integrates music and life stories. Directed by Robert Kelley, he brings a lot of heart and passion to his cast of talented actors. Kelly keeps the show moving and Dottie Lester-White choreography is infectious. For gay audiences, the discovering one’s sexual identity here is bittersweet, poignant and moving. Small and college Alison sing “Party Dress” and bring that discovery of understanding.
The lighting, by Steven B. Mannshardt, creates a funeral home that turns into a rock venue, but for the icon hit song “Ring of Keys” it is missing boxes of light patterns that create that graphic novel look. Tesori, Kron created a stage a play based on memories and I think the caption boxes are important that Kelley did not create in this staging. The three Alison's may be different in looks but they bond and become the winning element of making this production so sterling. The older Alison shadows her younger self, looking for signs and clues. Kommor as the college age Alison, is awkward and sweet as she falls for her first love, a classmate and Firstenberg as Joan proves her affection. Gold as young Alison, is a bright girl who loves to draw, hates to wear dresses and recognizes something in herself when she sees a curious delivery woman who carries a “Ring of Keys.”
Important is the mother and wife, Helen, played by the stunning Crissy Guerrero. She is in the shadows playing a piano in the parlor or joining the story with worried, emotional looks. She listens to her family sing about their home, a space that is all “polished and shined” with “everything balanced and serene,” Helen sings a telling ballad about her loveless husband and is at the end of her rope she describes her loss in the song “Days and Days.” Guerrero has a pitch perfect voice. Helen says in a pained voice, that tugs at our heartstrings, she sings in her intense voice of “days made of bargains I made now my life is shattered and laid bare days and days and days ... Welcome to our house.”
Kelley's direction is detailed staging of Bechdel’s tragicomic work in that every moment is played for truth. Kelley's smart use of space staged on a standard arch setting overcomes rethinking the concept and he has the leads enter from the audience. Set designer Bechert brings set pieces in and out and lowers a wall to reveal the father's classic affection for his antique collection. Lighting designer, Mannshardt, keeps the mood dark when needed. His bright disco look in “Rainbow of Love”, but missing are the effects of the comic-strip outlines. Music director, Liberatore, brings a rich sound to the score, the eight pit musicians are truly part of this 95 minute story. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers is most impressive in keeping the young actors in the story easy to hear and Liberatore's pit a perfect match with the tight gifted cast.
Kelley avoids projections of the drawings from the graphic novel except for one dramatic image. Instead, we only see Alison drawing at her desk as it floats around the stage as time comes and goes. FUN HOME is extraordinary and brought me to tears a number of times. Its is a family drama that brings back “Next To Normal”, unforgettable full truth. Alison sings a beautiful song "Maps" and asks a lyrical question of the audience to join her on this journey. "Sometimes my dad appeared to enjoy having children." We see the truth as her lost dad shares his passions for antiques and drawing, with his daughter. But we also see his dark side as he declines to listen to his kids, as he fusses over his restored, antique filled house. He drifts off with a hot yard-worker, a former student of his, the handsome local favorite Michael Doppe who plays the various boys and men in Bruce's hook ups.
Gold, Kommor and Stone don't seem like versions of each other, but the three extraordinary performers play the same character, and it is truly a tour de force of emotion and exploration. Grown-up Alison in creating her drawings to free herself, life doesn't have to be unhappy. FUN HOME is one of those shows that reminds us of how far we have come to intelligent American musical theater. A Family Tragicomic Alison's process of drawing together fragments of memory makes us consider captions in our own lives that we wish had gone differently. FUN HOME is a musical you need to see a second and third time; this new American theatre is not to be missed. Next up at ThreatreWorks is their holiday musical TUCK EVERLASTING that opens November 28th. THE SANTALAND DIARIES for Adult holiday fans opens December 5th. But in the meantime don’t miss this regional premiere of FUN HOME and bring a ring of keys.
Music by Jeanine Tesori Book by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Richard Kelley
Through Oct 28th
Mt View Center of the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street Mt View Ca
Running time: 95 minutes
Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Tickets at https://theatreworks.org
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne
FUN HOME Sitzprobe at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley