Fun Home Offers an Intimate Look at Coming of Age and Coming to Terms
SpeakEasy Stage presents the 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Musical.
If you think you've already experienced Fun Home, think again.
Although it's only been a year since the Tony Award-winning musical was last seen in Boston, on its national tour, that doesn't come close to matching the devastating power wielded by director Paul Daigneault's deeply felt production, now running at SpeakEasy Stage.
Based on Alison Bechdel's biographical graphic novel of the same name, Fun Home is a seemingly unconventional musical about a lesbian cartoonist and her secretly gay dad. The story begins with Alison (a capable but shrill-voiced Amy Jo Jackson), a 43-year-old woman looking for answers and sifting through her memories, desperate to distill some truth from a life that has been anything but straightforward. Occurring mostly in Alison's memory, we glimpse moments of her life as a child (Small Alison is played by an incredible Marissa Simeqi) and as a teenage student at Oberlin (Ellie van Amerongen, potent as Medium Alison) who first learns of her father's secret while beginning to explore her own sexuality with girlfriend Joan (Desiré Graham).
Bechdel grew up in the '60s and '70s, and when she turned 20 in 1980, her father, Bruce, killed himself by jumping in front of a truck. Bruce (played unevenly by Todd Yard), struggled to keep his private longings at bay while still being a father to Alison and her two brothers, and a husband to his wife, Helen (a remarkable Laura Marie Duncan). Those private longings didn't stay very private, though, and slowly ate away at both Bruce and Helen. By the time a college-aged Alison came out to her mother, Helen had little patience for matters of homosexuality, given its corrosive effect on her marriage. Alison understands that her life as a gay woman began just as her father's ended, and she has lived under that shadow for over two decades by the time Fun Home begins.
Bruce was an antique collector with a passion for restoring houses. By day, he worked as an English teacher, and on the weekends as a funeral director at the family funeral home, which his kids called "the fun home." The book, by Lisa Kron, paints him as Bechdel does in her graphic novel: a man obsessed with order and perfection in every aspect of his life, including the appearance of his daughter, whom he aggressively shames into wearing a dress when she prefers Converse and a T-shirt. And as the director of a funeral parlor, Bruce was responsible for beautifying the dead, removing any signs of trauma. As Alison struggles to make sense of her story, she mirrors her father's obsession with order and precision as she confines her memories to cels on a page and aims not to beautify the tragedy of a father she never knew that well, but rather to make it less traumatic.
You needn't be invested in the life and times of Alison Bechdel to be completely taken by the genius of what composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron have done with their arresting score, weaving in and out between past and present and cohabiting seamlessly with Kron's book. The pair also made history when they became the first female composing team to take home the Tony for Best Score, which is brought to stirring life here under the musical direction of Matthew Stern.
Daigneault owes a lot to Sam Gold's original in-the-round staging, but SpeakEasy's production feels more emotionally raw, even if some of the performances are uneven, and despite the score being sometimes inadequately sung, particularly by Jackson. This intimate, nearly immersive production puts the audience in the middle of Alison's world and the Bechdels' living room (Cristina Todesco's set is beautifully lit by Karen Perlow). Fun Home is a musical that pierces the heart in a way that few modern musicals can. Paired with Daigneault's astonishing production, it takes your breath away.