A graphic novelist examines her past in Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s musical.
"Caption: My dad and I were exactly alike," Alison (Danni Smith) narrates in the opening number of the musical Fun Home, now playing at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. "Caption: My dad and I were nothing alike."
Fun Home is adapted from Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The musical, with a score by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, moves freely through Alison's memories, showing her at three stages: age 43 (Smith, who is talented but quite clearly younger than 43), as a freshman in college (Hannah Starr), and as a young child (Sage Elliott Harper in the performance I attended, and Stella Rose Hoyt). Adult Alison sorts through old diaries, sketchbooks, and her father's old antiques, simultaneously trying to re-create her memories and come to terms with them.
She lays out the crux of her story in the beginning: "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." Alison's journey through her past centers around one figure: her father, Bruce (Rob Lindley). Bruce is a tightly wound, mercurial man who turns from affection to fits of anger with no notice. He teaches English, operates the family mortuary, and pours his energy into the restoration of the family home. Behind closed doors, he also pursues affairs with younger (some even underage) men as his wife, Helen (McKinley Carter), turns a blind eye.
Director Gary Griffin has cast Fun Home flawlessly. Despite her visible youth, Smith gives an achingly authentic performance as a woman facing down her ghosts and her memories. Little Alison is a formidable role for any child actor, and Harper does it justice, with strong pipes and a mischievous sense of humor (qualities shared by Leo Gonzalez and Preetish Chakraboty, who play her brothers). And Starr nearly steals the show as Medium Alison experiences her sexual awakening and a seismic change in her relationship with her parents.
If Carter is underutilized as Helen in Fun Home's beginning, she more than makes up for it with a soaring performance of the heartbreaking ballad "Days and Days." Lindley plays Bruce with delicately placed layers of mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that give way to reveal a raw, damaged soul. Rounding out the cast, Danielle Davis finds humor and heat as Joan, Alison's first love, and Joe Lino is charming in a series of smaller roles.
The voices soar, aided by Doug Peck's strong musical direction, but there are times — especially in the musical's dramatic latter half — that Griffin's staging is too static. Perhaps all the stillness is a nod to the musical's graphic-novel origins. If so, it is emphasized by Paul Whitaker's sharply linear lighting and Yu Shibagaki's straightforward set. The result, though sometimes effective, grows monotonous in time.
Ultimately, the material is so well-paced, and the cast so talented and inventive, that any visual missteps fall by the wayside. Fun Home is an emotional musical, one that can resonate deeply with its audience when it is done right. And Victory Gardens has done Fun Home right.