“Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them.
Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” — Oscar Wilde
Every phase of that epigram seems to be taking place simultaneously in “Fun Home.” But this show has room for forgiveness, too. It knows that in those endless enigmas we call family, judgments are never final, and love never fades altogether.
Within such uncertainty, “Fun Home,” now playing at Chance Theater on the Cripe Stage through March 1st, finds a shining clarity that lights up the night.
Throughout the 100 minutes of this magnificent show we are knit together by the silken threads of magic that composer Jeanine Tesori and lyrics and book writer Lisa Kron have created from the autobio-"graphic" novel by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. She steers us into her family's center like a heat seeking missile. No one is spared. No one is favored. No one is pushed aside. Everyone gets their propers, even if the story is not pretty.
But don't let the subject matter fool you. You may surmise that the show might not be a cheery way to spend a couple of hours, but don’t be misled. Guided by the sure direction of Marya Mazor ("Tigers Be Still;" "Tribes") and music director, Lex Leigh ("Company;" "The Pajama Game"), ”Fun Home” is a heartwarming, soul-stirring story, set in motion as an visceral roller-coaster ride, mixed with some of the smartest and most joyful numbers that ever came out of musical theatre.
The power of the story is enhanced by the songs, which mix passion with humor. Tesori has previously demonstrated her abilities as musical dramatist with “Violet” and “Caroline, or Change,” as well as the more popular “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek.” In such good company, the “Fun Home” score is monumental, revealing talent and sensitivity that is unmatched, sustained throughout the piece.
As in her graphic novels, Bechdel is a character in her own story. She is the viewer and the viewed. At the drawing table where she’s composing her memoir, Alison (Ashlee Espinosa, resurging her role from IVRT's recent production) keeps thinking up and discarding captions for her sketches. For every image she must find a caption, and within a few minutes into the story she finds one: “My Dad and I both grew up in the same small, Pennsylvania town. And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I... became a lesbian cartoonist.” She always knew she’d have to write about him someday, not only to exorcise his troubled spirit, but also her own ambivalent feelings about him. “I can’t find my way through. Just like you. Am I just like you?”
And we the audience? We laugh at the combination of truth and absurdity. And it only gets better.
Framed by the questing recollections of an artist who turns the shadows of her past into pen and ink, the musical’s setting is one of those hall of mirrors where most of us grew up. It’s a place where the images of who you once were still linger, and where, no matter how hard you try, you can’t look at anyone else without seeing some of yourself. Such is the curse and the comfort of belonging to a family. Any family.
This enormously likeable show was a popular hit five years ago when it opened in 2013 on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, a triumph that capped a groundbreaking ceremony where women collected trophies in every creative field. "Fun Home's" composer, Jeanine Tesori, and lyricist/book writer Lisa Kron, made history as the first female writing team to win in their categories, which came as a complete surprise to the industry. The show has also been viewed as an amalgamation of LGBTQ history alongside Bechdel’s own coming-of-age narrative.
The scene opens where Alison, at the age of 43, feeling hopelessly stalled in her personal life and budding career, is looking for inspiration in a box of mementos (a.k.a. “crap,” as she calls it). As she begins pulling out keepsakes long since forgotten, she suddenly becomes lost in childhood memories of growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in that big Victorian house which doubled as a funeral home (sardonically nicknamed, the Fun Home). Her father, Bruce, who also teaches High School English, spent endless years restoring that old house with a perfectionist’s tyranny, never fully finishing his work, while balancing that with funeral ceremonies and embalming.
Bruce Bechdel (Ron Hastings, "Ragtime;" "The Other Place") is a complex and morally ambiguous character, a taskmaster and a bully who nonetheless loves his children and has a special bond with Alison. Mr. Hastings fully embraces this complicated man and all his bewildering contradictions. It’s only now, as a grown woman, that his daughter finds the courage to make her peace. Throughout the performance, Alison tells us over and over again that she is looking for the truth. As she does she finds whimsy and moments of despair as well as brilliance. Within that action, the perfectly quadrated music is so intimate that it almost takes your breath away.
We first begin to see Bechdel as the pre-teen Small Alison (Holly Reichert) and then college-freshman Middle Alison (Madelyn Velazquez), sometimes all at the same time, in the same space, sometimes delivering the same sentence. At moments you may feel you’ve developed quadruple vision, and not just because your eyes are misted with tears. It’s also a matter of those three actresses playing the same character at different ages, a device that usually feels strained in theater, but here comes off as naturally as breathing.
Small Alison grows up trying to communicate with her decidedly difficult father Bruce; Middle Alison leaves home for college, where (a) she comes out, (b) learns her father is gay, and (c) watches as he commits suicide months later. The adult Alison, meanwhile, struggles to make sense of it all. While the three Alisons are central, Mr. Hastings’ Bruce is the key to the proceedings.
As the repressed, unknowable father, he gives an excellent performance so uncharacteristic that some viewers are likely to be shocked at times in his range and divided self, with melodies that change moods — from crisp, fatherly propriety to growling, guttural lust — subtly and disturbingly. As the husband of Helen (Jennifer Richardson), Bruce is a fastidious upholder of the perfect-family facade, one who frequently picks up young men (all persuasively played by the dashing Matt Bolden, "Big Fish;" "Bye Bye Birdie") on the down low.
The cast is also bolstered by the two young brothers, Reese Hewitt (“Newsies;” “Willie Wonka”) as Christian and Christopher Patow (“The Who’s Tommy;” “Appropriate”) as John. Mixing emotionally moving numbers with others that simply lift the roof off the theatre, “Come to the Fun Home” is a raucous comic knockout which features all three children (Mr. Hewitt, Mr. Patow and Ms. Reichert) appearing early in what thus far seems to be an overwhelmingly serious evening. The three pre-teens radiate blissful joy as they present a casket-riding TV commercial while hanging out in the mortuary for their family-run funeral home, transforming Alison’s clan into a perfectly synced, finger-snapping musical group along the lines of a pop band, very much like the Partridge Family.
Ketino Christopher portrays Alison’s gorgeous college girlfriend, Joan, her first lover. “Changing My Major,” a sexual awakening delivered by Ms. Velazquez, paying exuberant tribute to Joan in the throes of passion, is an irrepressible whirlwind artfully crafted with the realistic exhilaration of an 18-year old; and the trenchant number, “Ring of Keys,” in which the incomparable Ms. Reichert’s tomboy Alison discovers the meaning of physical attraction and instant kinship in a fabulous ode to a handsome delivery woman glimpsed in a coffee shop, becomes a number so gloriously good that you can’t imagine Tesori and Kron could ever top it — until they hit you with the absolutely shattering “Days and Days,” performed by Ms. Richardson’s Helen.
Helen seems almost invisible in this family, but she is the real hidden strength of Alison's manuscript. Late in the show, she is revealed to have been very much aware of Bruce’s desperate dalliances all along, but what could she do other than sit at the piano, passively practicing Chopin? “Chaos never happens if it’s never seen,” she repeatedly notes. Finally comes her song, which illuminates the show with staggering hard-hitting lyrics — “Days and Days.” And Ms. Richardson is breathtakingly stunning, giving full life to a lacerating 11 o’clock ballad of repressed emotions set free.
Director Mazor admirably brings lucidity and dynamics to the complex mechanics of staging a bittersweet story that takes place in three time frames, embodied by three perfectly matched, first-rate actresses. Complementing the action perfectly is Lex Leigh’s music direction, sublimely pumping loads of adrenalin to your heart through Tesori’s grippingly haunting music as you watch the now and again happy, frequently revelatory, and at times, tragic lives unfold before you. Director Leigh is on keyboard in the piece, accompanied by Jimmy Beall on bass, Jorge Zuniga on drums. Isabella Pepke is cellist.
The music is woven so intricately into Ms. Kron’s time-juggling script that you’ll find yourself hard pressed to recall what exactly was said and what was sung, with every member of the cast fluent in this rare musical language. Tesori saves her most devastating confessional number, however, for Bruce’s despairing epiphany at the end of the show, “Edges of the World,” where we see his spiral play out in a white-hot blizzard of words and emotions, as he rides it to the stars.
Bradley Kaye’s somewhat sparse stage features a combination of big set pieces and imaginary. There is, for instance, a large, fully functional coffin, but an air piano and mimed TV. At Chance, audiences are split, facing each other, simulating an in-the-round-like viewpoint, similar to its original production staging. Vignette action takes place on both sides of the stage as scenery moves, rotates and reappears instantly as if in cartoon panels. But because of that intimate staging, the result is a greater immediacy that enhances the impact of the material, with viewers almost like an extended family, sometimes within arm’s length.
Bradley Lock’s costumes, Andrea Heilman’s lighting, Danthi Tran’s props, Ryan Brodkin’s sound design and Hazel Clarke’s choreography ingeniously keep us both fixed in time and afloat in timelessness. Kelsey Somerville masterfully manages the stage. But, truly, this show could be staged on the back of a truck and still break your heart. Elucidating that fully is the audience standing in unity at its conclusion, roaring in radiant response.
“Fun Home,” playing through March 1st at Chance Theater in Anaheim, is an objet d'art not to miss. “Extraordinary and Heart-Gripping” says the New York Times. Tickets are going fast, but can be obtained online at chancetheater.com. Chance Theater has been called a “major force on the Southern California theatrical landscape.” Come early for best parking. This show is very highly recommended.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report