CARTOONIST ALISON BECHDEL’S GRAPHIC NOVEL IS A BOLD RELEVANT MUSICAL.
THE BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE IS A ‘FUN HOME’ A FAMILY TRAGICOMIC WITH HEART AND SONG, THIS IS A INSPIRATIONAL AMERICAN MUSICAL
Review by Vince Mediaa
The Berkeley Playhouse Julia Morgan stage is the perfect funeral home for an engaging important 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 dark full of family secrets. FUN HOME is now on stage at the Berkeley Playhouse through April 2nd. It is not what you expect for your mainstream musical, taking place in a funeral home with a young family growing up in a very strict home of vulnerable antiques and secrets.
Director William Thomas Hodgson says “"I'm really excited that we're doing this show at this theater–this really family-centric, community-centric theater–because to me this is a family show. It's about families. It's about queer people and families. It's about finding yourself and being true to who you truly are and denying that kind of mask that we all put on." The cast is stunning with three versions of Alison who appear in the story. The adult version of Alison is played by the gifted Lucca Troutman; she sings “Welcome to our House on Maple Avenue” with the entire cast. Two keen young actors share the role of the youngest version of Alison played by Ayla Klasen and Danielle Sutro. The terrific Maia Campbell plays the college version of Alison and is wonderful in her solo “Changing my Major.”
Opening weekend Troutman and young Alison easily brought the crowd to tears in the dynamic number “Ring of Keys” where she realizes she is gay. Present day Alison who is off stage drawing and writing 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 moods of this musical is the aspect it brings to this 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 Mark P. Robinson 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; Sawyer Ciruli, Rowen Weeramantry, Diego Osorio and Kyle Walsh 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 bold, Lindsay Katherin Ford, who helps her new friend deal with her father.
Bruce's wife Helen is an important arc in this story, she is played by the stunning Alison Ewing who has a compelling voice and is one of the best in this already excellent cast. She is in the shadows playing a piano in the parlor or joining the story with worried, emotional looks. Helen listens to her family sing about their home, a space that is all “polished and shined” with “everything balanced and serene,” Ewing beautifully 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.” Ewing has a pitch perfect voice she sings “days made of bargains I made now my life is shattered and laid bare days and days and days welcome to our house.”
Director Hodgson brings a lot of heart and passion to his cast of talented actors. He keeps the show moving and assistant director choreographer Sam Jackson kept the limited dance numbers infectious. For gay audiences, discovering one’s sexual identity here is bittersweet, poignant and moving. Small and college Alison sings “Party Dress” and brings that discovery of understanding. The three Alisons may be different in looks but they bond and become the winning element of making this production so important. The older Alison shadows her younger self looking for signs and clues. Campbell as the college age Alison is awkward and sweet as she falls for her first love, a classmate and Ford as Joan proves her affection. Thompson and Sutro 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.”
Set designer Angerette Mccloskey brings set pieces in and out and uses blank back-lit walls to reveal the father's affection for his antique collection. Lighting designer Bo Tindell, creates perfect mood lighting for the many shadow reveals of the family's drama. His bright disco look in “Rainbow of Love”is a bright spot in this musical. Yet missing are the effects of the comic-strip outlines. Music director Michael Patrick Wiles, brings a rich sound to the score, the seven pit musicians are truly part of this 100 minute story.
Hodgson avoids projections of the drawings from the graphic novel instead we only see Alison drawing at her desk off stage. FUN HOME 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 dad shares his passions for antiques and drawing, with his daughter. But we also see his dark side as he avoids listening to his kids as he fusses over his antique filled house. He drifts off with a hot yard worker, a former student of his, played by the impressive Will Thompson, who plays the various boys and men in Bruce's hook ups. Robinson sings the dramatic “Edges of the World” where Bruce reveals more of his dark side, the song falls flat but the drama remains.
FUN HOME is one of those shows that reminds us of how far we have come to relevant 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 Berkeley Playhouse is BECOMING ROBIN HOOD that opens May 26th. But in the meantime don’t miss this perfect production of FUN HOME and bring a ring of keys.
BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE Presents
Music by Jeanine Tesori Book by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by William Thomas Hodgson
Assistant Directed by Sam Jackson
Music Directed by Michael Patrick Wiles
Through April 2nd 2023,
Julia Morgan Center for the Arts
2640 College Ave Berkeley Ca
Running time: 1 hour 40 min minutes no intermission
Tickets at https://tickets.berkeleyplayhouse.org/
Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BerkeleyPlayhouse
Photo Credits: Ben Krantz Studio.
Thurs MARCH 9th Pay What you can - 7pm