Review: FUN HOME

by Lynn on April 18, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the CAA Theatre (formerly The Panasonic Theatre), Toronto, Ont.

Music by Jeanine Tesori

Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron

Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel

Directed by Robert McQueen

Music director, Reza Jacobs

Choreographed by Stephanie Graham

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Alex Amini

Sound by Michael Laird

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Cast: Evan Buliung

Laura Condlln

Cynthia Dale

Sara Farb

Hannah Levinson

Jasper Lincoln

Liam MacDonald

Eric Morin

Sabryn Rock

A joyous, moving, beautifully realized production of this glorious musical, of a woman’s journey to acknowledging she’s gay and her father who refused to acknowledge he was too.

 The Story. The story is told as a flashback by Alison Bechdel at 43-years-old. She is a cartoonist and a lesbian. She is remembering her family when she grew up in Pennsylvania. She remembers this from three points in her life: when she was 11- years-old and had stirrings that she might be different, 18-years-old when she was in college and realized she was gay and at 43-years-old when she was putting everything in focus.

The centre of her world was her father Bruce. He taught English at the local high school, ran the family funeral home business (amusingly referred to as “Fun Home” by his kids) and restored old houses as a hobby. And Alison learns he was gay from her mother who said he had slept with men for their whole married life. Four months after she came out Alison tells us her father killed himself. This is not a spoiler. It was told near the beginning of the show.

The Production. Alison (Laura Condlln) is unpacking a box of stuff she inherited from her father Bruce (Evan Buliung). Each item–a silver tea pot, a ring of keys etc.– pricks a particular memory. She notes: “Caption” as she draws the memory from each item.

We meet Small Alison (Hannah Levinson) at 11-years-old: impish, demanding, confident, loves to wear jeans, hates to wear dresses and berets in her hair. Medium Alison (Sara Farb) at 18-years-old is in college, insecure, unsettled, desperate not to be a lesbian and then embraces her lesbian self when she comes out after meeting Joan (Sabryn Rock), a gay woman with whom she is instantly smitten.

Sara Farb sings “Changing My Major” with intoxicating confidence, with freedom from her doubts and a reverie that is contagious. The constant concern is how her parents will deal with the letter she sent them, in which she comes out to them. She is anxious to know; especially what her father thinks. Then her mother Helen (Cynthia Dale) drops the bombshell about her father’s sexuality.

When Small Alison sees a dyke delivering supplies to a local luncheonette she has an immediate sense of recognition. “I know you” she sings in her glorious rendering of “Ring of Keys”. To see the glow of recognition on Hannah Levinson’s face and to hear her resounding realization of the song is to have gold in your life.

Fun Home  unfolds from the points of view of the three Alisons at those stages of their lives. Through it all Alison watches on stage, often focusing on her younger selves, often on her father, always still, never pulling our attention away from the main scene. Laura Condlln imbues Alison with sensitivity, compassion and a confidence that comes from living and accepting who she is and those around her.

The three Alisons are always drawing cartoons of moments that strike their eye and always with their left hand. I know it should be obvious but that small detail exemplifies director Robert McQueen’s attention to the myriad details in this moving production. (One assumes the real Alison Bechdel is left-handed.)

At the centre of Alison’s world is her father Bruce played beautifully by Evan Buliung with a puffed up confidence and charm that is obvious to the outside world and an agitated ill-temper to his family. His true love is finding an object that is a treasure in a pile of junk. The sense of discovery and the care of the object is poetic when he sings about a tea pot to Small Alison: “Is it junk or silver?/With polish, we can tell./I love how tarnish melts away/Opening up to lustre.” Stunning.

On the edges of this family, trying to keep it all together, barely noticed, is Helen, Bruce’s wife and mother to Alison and her brothers. Helen is played by Cynthia Dale in a performance that is nuanced and aching. Helen knows the truth about Bruce and stays in that marriage trying to make things work and to be present and visible. Dale sings “Days and Days” about the days of cleaning and polishing and trying to keep order until this stunning lyric: “And no one clocks the day you disappear,”  with a self-knowledge that leaves you with a knot in your heart. This is some of the best work I have ever seen from Cynthia Dale.

Camellia Koo has designed an efficient set of movable pieces for easy change of scenes. There is the suggestion of the finery of Bruce’s clear eye for found treasures. Alex Amini’s costumes are also fitting for the characters: stylish preppy for Bruce, jeans and work shirts for the older Alisons and jeans and jersey for Small Alison. A dress for Helen.

Robert McQueen establishes the relationships and pairings of the three Alisons with style. The pace is swift and moments that require absolute stillness are riveting. This is a beautifully rendered production of this gem of a musical.

 Comment. Fun Home was written by the power-house duo of Jeanine Tesori (Music) and Lisa Kron (Book and lyrics). Individually they have made their mark in the theatre. Tesori wrote: Caroline or Change, Shrek the Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Violet to name a few. Lisa Kron wrote 2.5 Minute Ride and Well. Together they created a game changer in musical theatre with Fun Home. Not only did they win for best score and book of a musical but Fun Home also won as a Tony Award as best musical in 2015.

They have continued in the foot-steps of Stephen Sondheim in creating a provocative story in music and lyrics. Both the music and lyrics capture the personalities and inner thoughts of the characters. There is the anxious worry of Helen as she sings “Welcome to our House on Maple Ave.” as she lists the things that must be arranged, polished and sorted in the house for an important guest; there is the simple and melodic “Ring of Keys” sung by the Small Alison; the gushing, buoyant, sensual “Changing my Major” sung by Medium Alison, the literary college student; there is the grinding, looping cycle of disappearing of Helen as she sings the plaintive “Days and Days,” and on and on. Both Kron and Tesori have captured the personalities of the characters in lyrics and music.

I found one scene particularly interesting since it seemed out of place. For most of the musical, Alison looks on her younger selves as they dealt with revelations and discovers. But she is put in a scene where Medium Alison, her 18-year-old self, would be more appropriate, Medium Alison has come home to introduce her parents to Joan. It is right after she sent them a letter, coming out. Her father has not said a word. He suggests they go for a drive but it is Alison (grown up and 43) that goes on the journey with him. Perhaps this is Alison’s opportunity to go over that ride in detail to see what was missing. She is anxious, desperate to address the issue of her sexuality and her father’s and he won’t bite. It is an interesting moment in the musical, one that keeps us thinking, as does the whole show. Glorious theatre.

David Mirvish presents the Musical Stage Company’s production.

Opened: April 17, 2018.

Closes: May 6, 2018.

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes (no intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian Stein April 20, 2018 at 4:45 pm

Lynn, very observant to have noticed the consistency of the left hand. There were so many small details that McQueen and his cast found, from Bruce, to the wife, to Medium Alison (Sara Farb) who, sitting in my seat in row A, was so into her performance that I was sure WAS Alison. You could see her thinking, in pain, full of joy. Took away my breath.


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