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REVIEW: "Fun Home" — IVRT @ Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

A Beautiful Heartbreaker of a Musical!

The Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home” traces the coming-of-age of lesbian author Alison Bechdel, from her youth to her years at Oberlin College, and finally to the present, where Alison, now grown, is struggling to write her own graphic autobiography. It is set in contemporary Pennsylvania with flashbacks to the recent past. As Alison reflects on her childhood, she struggles to make sense of it, particularly her complex relationship with her father, Bruce, a closeted gay man and the owner of the family business — the Bechdel Funeral Home (“fun” home, as it’s known to young Alison and her brothers, John and Christian).

As she watches her father’s self-loathing consume him, Alison recognizes her own experience of discovering and ultimately embracing her own identity. As “Fun Home” progresses, Alison is drawn deeper into her memories, desperately unable to reverse her father’s self-destruction. An unforgettable and groundbreaking musical, “Fun Home” explores the haunting pull of memory and the power it has to alternately destroy or shape our identity.

Directed by Frank Minano with assistance by Hope Kaufman, and Choreography by Kim Eberhardt, “Fun Home” is a musical adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel's 2006 explicitly detailed memoir (in comic format) of the same name, published to critical acclaim. It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, told in a series of non-linear vignettes connected by narration provided by the adult Alison character.

The show stars Ashlee Espinosa ("Thoroughly Modern Millie" -Regional, "Shrek") as the present-day Alison Bechdel, Rachel Addington ("The Producers," "Company") as Medium Alison, and Maya Grace Fischbein ("Fun Home" - Broadway, "Secret Garden" - Regional) as Small Alison. The outstanding John LaLonde ("Cabaret," "Man of LaMancha") is Bruce Bechdel, comely Tracy Ray Reynolds ("Company," "Souvenir") is Helen Bechdel, Lucca Beene ("Big Fish," "Annie Get Your Gun") plays John Bechdel, and Adrew Bar ("Auntie Mame," "Ragtime") is Christian Bechdel. Katherine Washington ("Godspell," "The Wedding Singer") portrays Alison’s romantic interest, Joan, and Abel Miramontes ("The Secret Garden," "Annie") is featured in multiple roles, playing Roy, Pete, Mark and Bobby Jeremy.

The original Broadway production was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical, and its cast album received a nomination for the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. With Stage Management by Mia Mercado, Costumes by Jeanette Capuano, Wigs and Hair by Kirklyn Robinson, Sound Design by Nick Galvan and Lighting by Caleb Shiba, the show recently concluded a two-day mid-week run, enjoying a full house both days at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre. IVRT has been in partnership with the Candlelight Pavilion with their "Wednesdays Just Got Dramatic" program since 2007.

According to his daughter's book, Bruce Bechdel was a part-time mortician and a high-school English teacher who had once dreamed of a glamorous bohemian life in Europe. He and Helen met in 1956 as cast members in a student production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the State Teacher’s College in Lock Haven, near his home town. Early in their marriage when Helen was pregnant with Alison, Bruce’s father had a heart attack, and he was called home to help his mother run the Bechdel Funeral Home.

The title of “Fun Home” officially refers to the family’s nickname for this venerable establishment, the old clapboard house on Main Street—where Bruce embalms bodies, Alison vacuums the viewing parlor, and she and her two younger brothers, John and Christian, play “corpses. The home is like a derelict Gothic Revival mansion, with Bruce taking a manic, funerary approach to its décor. He ripped its rotting guts out, then filled the void with simulacra of Victorian grandeur. The effect was less of a living space, perhaps, than a macabre one. I’m sure, to some degree, living there was quite a bit like living in the Addams family mansion.

As she works on her journal in the present day setting, Alison Bechdel, now a successful middle-aged cartoonist, recalls two time periods in her life. The first is her childhood, around age 10 (focusing on Ms. Fischbein as Small Alison), when she struggles against her father’s obsessive demands and begins to identify her inchoate sexuality. The second is Medium Alison (Ms. Reynolds) in her first year in college at 19, then an Oberlin student discovering her sexuality with soulmate Joan (Ms. Washington), and coming out of the closet as a lesbian.

Alison considered her father, Bruce, a man possessed — a mad artificer — a man who had noble qualities, but a violent temper with isolating secrets. Helen, on the other hand, took refuge in her music and her acting, and Alison translated her parents’ rapt immersion and solitary pursuits as abandonment. Bruce was capable on occasion, however, of incandescent tenderness, and “Fun Home” opens with an image of Alison at ten and her father playing “airplane” on the floor. But later, it also contains a haunting scene that suggests a streak of sadism, reserved, it would seem, for his only daughter. One day while he was prepping the cadaver of a young man, he asked Alison to help him in the embalming room. The body was laid out on the table, and in her drawing of it in “Fun Home,” it resembles the fallen statue of a centurion.

Bruce died in a vexed state of mind. Battling his own demons, he was also a closeted homosexual whose extra-marital affairs included underage males. He had been renovating another old wreck of a house to resell, and while crossing the highway that ran past its front door, he had been struck by a Sunbeam bread truck. Helen had finally asked him for a divorce four months before, and Alison believes that the combination of this with his aberrant past, along with a bipolar disorder catching up with him, her father had jumped into its path.

Alison’s book was adapted into a musical with book and lyrics by Kron and music by Tesori, but the adaptation was difficult. The show developed over the course of a long five years, entailing extensive changes and rewrites, sometimes requiring the actors in preview to perform new material every night. But although Alison did not participate in the musical's creation, in the final outcome she came to feel that the emotional heart of the story was closer than even in her own book.

Jeanine Tesori's score is nothing short of a masterpiece, noting that the vibrant miscellany of songs with their varied kinds of music — a jazzy number for the young Alison, for example, in the middle of a rescue fantasy, or Sondheim-influenced songs that unfold over rhythmically rich harmonies — come together to create an impressive, integrated entity. The show's ensemble numbers are engrossingly dramatic and accentuates Lisa Kron's marvelous set of sensitive lyrics, perfectly pairing with Tesori’s striking musical styles.

Many of the numbers are favorites and heavily anticipated by fans. Songs such as, “It All Comes Back” (ensemble opener), “Come to the Fun Home” (the children’s number with choreography), “Changing My Major” (featuring Ms. Addington), “Pony Girl,” (spotlighting Mr. LaLonde), “Ring of Keys” (sang by Miss Fischbein), “Telephone Wire” (by Mr. LaLonde and Ms. Espinosa), and “Flying Away” (the finale by all three Alisons).

The onstage orchestra included Andrew Orbison conducting and on keyboard, Brian Kukan on Bass, Max Wagner on Guitar, Alan Waddington on Drums, Stephan Cardenas on Reeds, Oliver Walton on Cello and Mari Mizutani on Violin and Viola.

The artistry and universality of the theme makes it a beautiful heartbreaker of a musical. There are tender, ironic and courageously vulnerable moments within the show, and although it is staged in somewhat of a rough-hewn style that may be more accidental than intentional, it succeeds in large measure because of them. One reason is Alison’s honest, inwardly searching sensibility which helps honor a musical that isn’t afraid to reveal its awkward side.

Inland Valley Repertory Theatre Company (IVRT) was founded in 1990, by Frank & Donna Marie Minano, with the goals of presenting high quality local theatrical productions to promote the talents of aspiring actors of all ages.

During that time, IVRT has remained true to its vision by producing critically-acclaimed and award-winning theatrical works, which have garnered widespread honors such as the Rancho Cucamonga Community Foundation’s Primavera Award for "Outstanding Contributions to the Arts."

Inland Valley Repertory Theatre expresses appreciation to all their loyal patrons and hopes to see you at their next upcoming production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” scheduled to run from October 23rd through November 6th.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report


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