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TheatreWorks’ ‘Fun Home’ imperfectly balances past and present

Jack Barrett, Lila Gold, Billy Hutton, Crissy Guerrero, James Lloyd Reynolds, and Moira Stone star in TheatreWorks' "Fun Home" (courtesy of Kevin Berne).

“Fun Home” shoves overdone musical theater tropes, narrative structures and themes onto a mortician’s table for reexamination. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name, the musical is filtered through the eyes of a 43-year-old Alison as she illustrates moments from her childhood and young adulthood. These moments are primarily set in her childhood house and the funeral home where her father worked. By highlighting memories that both display her younger self growing into her lesbian identity and investigate her unwitting adjacency to her father’s suppressed homosexuality, Alison purposefully reengages with the actions, and inactions, that resulted in her father’s eventual suicide.

It is likely that the story’s relevancy and honesty motivated TheatreWorks’ Artistic Director, Robert Kelley, to bring this narrative to the Bay Area. TheatreWorks is one of the most renowned regional theaters on the West Coast, and their “Fun Home” is a natural successor to the original Broadway production. We are lucky to have access to the show’s story this October. However, while TheatreWorks’ interpretation of this widely acclaimed musical beautifully builds quaint vignettes that enliven Alison’s lived experiences, it leaves audiences searching for a key to unlock the narrative’s complete emotional potential.

The five-time Tony Award-winning musical made history in 2015 when its adaptorsJeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron jointly became the first all-female writing team to win the Tony for Best Original Score. This morbidly overdue victory espoused the work’s textual novelty.

The musical feels distinctly deviant from most canonized musical theater repertoire not only due to its content, but its structure as well. The musical’s writing is motivated more by emotion than chronology, as sporadic memories are revisited in the order that Alison’s stream of consciousness demands. The performed text speaks to the universality of family connection, the potential our most unassuming experiences hold to make life-altering impacts and the fluid nature of memory and identity.

Director Robert Kelley’s artistic approach intelligently sails in tandem with the musical’s narrative and structural fluidity. This is first and foremost physicalized in Alison’s relationship to her memories. As Alison (Moira Stone) watches her memories reenacted, she is anything but a passive observer. Alison often intrudes in the reenactment space, and is seen actively making new discoveries. This proximal relationship narrows Alison’s distance from the past, and encourages audiences to actively puzzle together the world with her in real time. As the role of Alison dictates that Stone be present onstage for nearly the entire duration of the performance, it is worth noting that Stone impressively exudes the endurance and engagement of a falcon during this marathon of a performance.

This fluidity is additionally anthropomorphized in the set design that astutely reflects Alison’s mental state. Surprisingly, the set becomes one of the most impactful elements in the show. As Alison attempts to separate truths and fictions from her past, she wonders, “What do you know that’s not your dad’s mythology?” This question, which seems to drive the entire narrative, is backdropped by a lightly illustrated map that is painted on the floor and proscenium walls. The choice to cement a godlike map onstage that her father’s “whole life fits inside” continually reminds audiences of Alison’s overall goal to gain a better understanding of her past. It also reflects the logical processes she chooses to follow to reach this understanding.

Additionally, the map transforms the stage itself into a pseudo-prison for her father, Bruce Bechdel (James Lloyd Reynolds), by establishing his boundaries and confining his life to the stage. Though his portrayal of mental health could have accidentally become problematic, Reynolds’ Bruce easily and honestly navigates the personality flips and internal struggle at the core of Bruce’s psyche. His entrapment within the map is contrasted by other characters, particularly the young men with whom Bruce is secretly involved, who are able to flow in and out of the audience. The map is its own character, a symbolic externalization of Alison’s subconscious, and a trap for Bruce all at once, which I believe is extremely successful.

The map also grounds the mobile set components that, together, are reminiscent of the source material’s graphic novel form. The Bechdel family home feels like an ornate doll house, with a roof and window outlines that fly in to their respective places. Though, presumably, the house has multiple rooms, these aren’t clearly distinguished. This gives the set a storybook feel that allows Alison’s and the audience’s imaginations to fill in the gaps, while grounding the musical in the ’70s with statement wooden furniture pieces. One of the most keen and successful interactions between Alison and the world around her occurs when set pieces prematurely fly away before she has time to illustrate them in emotional moments of chaos and confusion.

However, the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts itself works against most of the benefits that should be fully accrued from the artful and well-aligned set design, diminishing the full impact of the set and the acting. When “Fun Home” was staged at Circle in the Square on Broadway, the intimacy an in-the-round staging brought to the musical gilded the nuance that already predominates the writing. Just as “Fun Home” itself is an untraditional musical, it doesn’t seem to appreciate being spread thin in a traditional proscenium theater. As a result, moments that should be small feel forcibly grand, and small moments are lost in the grandeur of the space.

Firstly, the ease with which the writing wants characters to flow between script and song is barraged by unmarried vocals. This is particularly an issue with Alison and Alison’s Mother, Helen Bechdel (Crissy Guerrero). Stone and Guerrero’s vocal choices for their respective characters are distinctly less contemporary than their Broadway counterparts, as they often flip into a mixed register that uses more head voice than chest voice, and they occasionally sing flat notes. While the utilization of a lighter mix could be effectively brought to life in many other musicals, it should be buried far far away from this funeral home. Stone and Guerrero’s clear flipping between singing and speaking doesn’t marry well with the conversational nature of the pieces they perform, and conveys a lack of energy in songs that should ooze of high stakes. This, in turn, bleeds into some non-musical scenes that possess some bland acting beats. Perhaps these issues could be partially attributed to the sound design, as it feels like the overall volume could be turned up a few notches.

However, this lack of dynamism is well-compensated by the kids in the cast, who already have an exorbitant amount of production credits in their program bios. The dark horse of the cast is clearly Billy Hutton, who plays the role of John. Though Hutton is not widely featured, his explosive and vibrant dedication to the role lights up the stage and energizes the audience. Laterally, Small Alison’s (Lila Gold) unsuspecting number, “Ring of Keys,” is handled with grace. She manages to nail a beautiful character arc and find the balance between subtlety and intensity that I craved.

Though not a child, Erin Kommor, who plays college-aged Alison, clearly steals the show. Her well-timed humor and gentle awkwardness are comfortingly specific and relatable. I felt entirely connected to her interpretation; she makes Alison feel like a friend you deeply care about and know well. Additionally, her expressive singing and belting perfectly align with her character. I’ve listened to her song, “Changing My Major,” countless times, but Kommor shed a new and refreshed light onto the material for me. Isn’t that all you can ask for from a performance?   

If I could change one aspect of this production, I would project more illustrations from Bechdel’s original graphic novel. Though an illustration was projected at the beginning of the musical, no other illustrations were projected for the duration of the show until the very end when the same illustration was projected a second time. Showing the illustrations that each scenic vignette is based off would force unity between the vignettes, and remind audiences what Alison works to achieve throughout the musical.

Though audiences won’t laud “Fun Home” as a ‘fun’ experience, that isn’t the production’s intention. It successfully increases the visibility of LGBTQ experiences in the musical theater cannon and ensconces avant-garde sensibilities into the commercial Bay Area theater scene. The kids are phenomenal, the adults well-focused and the animistic set design cleverly integrated. Though certain aspects of the production could be more connected, the show is thought-provoking and worthwhile in its own right.

 

Contact Chloe Wintersteen at chloe20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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