By James V. Ruocco
Told in non-linear fashion, it follows Alison through the various years of her life and retraces her troubled relationship with her closeted, gay father who had sex with teenaged boys; her mother, the victim of an unhappy marriage who knew about her husband's homosexuality; her dysfunctional homelife with her adorable, fun-loving siblings; her father's supposed suicide; and lastly, the melodrama associated with lesbian life, including her discovery of gay sex, her coming-out as a gay woman and her romantic entanglements with other females.
"A careful archivist of her own life," Bechdel narrates her evolving "Fun Home" musical portrait with details, illustrations, commentary, observations and memories that include watching cartoons on TV with her brothers, hording ticket stubs and sugar packets, drawing pictures as reference photos of her life, going to college and working alongside her father at the Bechdel Funeral Home.
At TheaterWorks in Hartford, the intimate, invigorating venue where "Fun Home" has settled in for an extended run, Bechdel's impassioned memoir unfolds with a euphoric wistfulness and confident delicateness that not only captures the quirky, sometimes haphazard reminiscence of the 2006 novel, but the fascination and commitment of a woman who has turned her life into art while endlessly discovering her own sexuality and the liberated gay proudness it has become.
It is beautiful and timely.
It is conscious and complicated.
It is catchy and tuneful.
It is heartbreaking and emotional.
It is also a musical tale about characters you believe in and care about what actually happens to them.
The image of a small-town Philadelphia life family trying to bring love and harmony into their otherwise shattered, erratic lives is probed and imagined with skill, entry, insight and preservation by director Rob Ruggiero whose TheaterWorks credits include "Next to Normal," "Constellations," "The Sound Inside," "Zoey's Perfect Wedding," "American Son" and "The Legend of Georgia McBride." Here, the details, the emotions, the levels, the sting and the discovery concurrent in Alison's story are vivid, powerful, candid and fully dimensional. This reminiscence is also laced with a special edge and sensitivity that makes its unique twists and turns palpable, compassionate and refreshingly photographic.
This, being a musical staged in the up close and immersive space that is TheaterWorks, Ruggiero is able to create a special, emotive one-on-one connection between actor and audience that brings additional nuance, personalization and intimacy to the production. That process not only heightens the drama and wonderment associated with the three simultaneous stories of Lisa Kron's telling - Adult Alison, Medium Alison, Small Alison - but gives "Fun Home" a centered uniqueness and haunting sincerity that makes the story even more special than it already is.
As "Fun Home" evolves, Ruggiero makes great use of this atmospheric touch, artfully navigating his family of performers through the ins and outs of the evolving narrative, offset by the grandeur of Luke Cantarella's brilliantly conceived set design, Camilla Tassi's detailed, important, past and present projections and Rob Denton's moody, dramatic lighting cues.
Winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Original Score, "Fun Home" is the brainchild of Lisa Kron (lyrics) and Jeanine Tesoni (music). There are 27 songs, all of which are seamlessly interspersed throughout Kron's evolving, emotional narrative. They are: "It All Comes Back (Opening)," "Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children," "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," "Not Too Bad," Just had a good talk with Dad," "Come to the Fun Home," "Helen's Etude," "Thanks for the care package," "Party Dress," "Changing My Major," "I leapt out of the closet," "Maps," "Read a book," "Raincoat of Love," "Clueless in New York," "Pony Girl," "A flair for the dramatic," "Ring of Keys," "Let me introduce you to my gay dad," "Shortly after we were married," "Days and Days," "You ready to go for that drive?" "Telephone Wire," "It was great to have you home," "Edges of the World," "This is what I have of you" and "Flying Away (Finale)."
The subject material is infused with a thrilling musicality that brings command and grasp to "Fun Home's" musical exploration of Alison's story. It is tight. It is fluid. It is probing. It is tactful. As storytellers, Kron and Tesori are sincere in their efforts filling in the memories and commentary with appropriate shading, tone, sweetness and aching harmony. Musical director Jeff Cox brings intimate detail and range to the score allowing it to soar remarkably with the shifts, mood swings, clarity and illumination dictated by its originators.
"Fun Home" stars Sarah Beth Pfeifer as Alison, Julia Nightingale as Medium Alison, Skylar Lynn Matthews as Small Alison, Aaron Lazar as Bruce, Christiane Noll as Helen, Ali Lous Bourzgui as Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby Jeremy, Cameron Silliman as Joan, Myles Low as Christian and Sam Duncan as John.
The three Alisons - a casting coup for Ruggiero - are magnificent singers and actresses. Confident, charming and charismatic in their own right, they deftly convey the quirkiness, the innocence, the identification, the curiosity, the self-discovery and the sexual awakening of the character with shining, warm, personable realization. The vocally perfect, charismatic Lazar easily projects the image of a dominant, torn, sometimes distant father driven to suicide, a noted fact introduced early on in the proceedings. The actor also believably projects the character's pain, suffering, unvarnished truths and brooding sexuality with troubled allure. The tremendously gifted Noll sensitively delivers a haunting, stirring portrait of a mother and wife trapped by an unhappy marriage. It's a rich, angst-ridden performance, driven by exceptional acting and vocal range. Bourzgui plays all four of his roles with invested spirit and personality. Silliman nails the role of Alison's lesbian girlfriend perfectly. Low and Duncan are truly delightful as Alison's siblings.
A moving, beautifully performed adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, "Fun Home" is an assured, confident revival that explores sexual yearning, fantasy, coming-of-age and familial acknowledgement with a quiet elegance and grace that is refreshing, wistful and truthful.
As musical theatre, this production is textured and complex. It is observant and dignified. It is also spirited and uplifting.
Uncorked with a liberating, ebullient feel by director Rob Ruggiero, "Fun Home" unfolds with an exciting energy, twist and swirl that makes it even more remarkable than it already is.
The cast wonderfully embodies the reality, joy, angst and complicated openness of Bechdel's autobiographical work. And the "Fun Home" score, recreated here by musical director Jeff Cox and his six-member band is complemented by an edgy, haunting and energized feel that carefully probes the emotional meaning of each song.