The Bechdel family has a funeral home (dubbed Fun Home by the kids) and also a not-fun family home. “See how we polish and we shine/We rearrange and realign/Everything is balanced and serene/Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.”
This Tesori/Kron musical is based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir. In Arden Theatre Company’s production Mary Tuomanen plays graphic novel artist Alison with intense and quiet sensitivity. She is seen mostly around the edges of the circular stage —remembering events in her life, observing through layers of time that sometimes blend. Drawing her panels, she turns pain and uncertainty into art work – that we don’t actually see. She watches herself as “Small Alison” (Lily Lexer) dealing with life at home, and re-lives her college-age awakening as Izzy Castaldi plays “Medium” Alison. Shocked to learn of her father’s homosexuality, she still sings blissfully of her own awkward joyous initiation to gay sex. Her college girlfriend, Joan, played rock solid by Jackie Soro is the only truly grounded character in the bunch.
Actor extraordinaire and smooth singer, Ben Dibble is Bruce Bechdel, head of Alison’s secretly dysfunctional family. A wildly inconsistent, controlling and obsessive-compulsive father, he sees himself as just a stickler for details. And he’s falling apart. Robert Hager slides into several roles, Bruce’s little secrets that are no secret to his wife.
Young kids (the aforementioned Lily Lexer with Charles LaMonaca and Lyam David-Kilker) cavort in and around a casket, adding life and bounce to a difficult and heartrending story. They sing:
“Well/Come to the Fun Home/that’s the Bechdel Funeral Home, baby/The Bechdel Fun Home…/We take dead bodies every day of the week/ So you’ve got no reason to roam/Use the Bechdel Funeral Home/What it is” Director Terrence J. Nolen banks on the kids to do a professional job. And they do. The young cast members are exposed to tragic adult stuff: criminally abusive secret sins of the father, a depressed, transgressed, and resigned mother, played wonderfully by Kim Carson who sings (to beautiful music): Days/ Made of bargains I made because I thought/As a wife/I was meant to, /And now my life is shattered and laid bare.And there will be a suicide. This can be divulged because shocking revelations don’t really shock. They’ve been fed forward
Grown up Alison is the story’s compass. Mary Tuomanen guides her character through elliptical memories, taking the measure of her past. Alison’s due north eventually points past her father to a long-buried regret she must exhume. I imagine this doesn’t sound like FUN. But actually this production has many laugh-out-loud moments, courtesy of all the fine acting, direction, and Lisa Kron’s book and idiosyncratic lyrics. All this and soaring music and haunting tunes too.( Plus some overly loud singing from a kid, but we can overlook that.) The design team is stellar on all counts. The in-the-round space, while rather spread out for such an intimate story, allows room for all the movement. The pocket orchestra led by Music Director/Conductor Ryan Touhey is quite wonderful.
At the start of the show it seemed like a familiar sound and mood was emerging in FUN HOME‘s score— recognizable patterns, a certain au courant approach to tunes, reminiscent of the work of several young, budding composers I’ve heard at NYMF in recent years [New York Music Festival]. I soon realize, however, that the tone may sound familiar because newbies have been subliminally and maybe not so subliminally influenced by Tesori’s award-winning work as it pervades the musical landscape.
The music’s tight integration with the lyrics creates character studies in song. Introspective in nature, FUN HOME has more in common with plays like Simon Stephens’s fascinating The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time than it has with splashy touring musicals. Yet it all comes together in a finale, with Flying Away belted out by the whole cast like the outsized musicals of old, bringing the audience to their feet.
[Arden Theatre Company, 40 N 2nd Street] May 17–June 17, 2018; ardentheatre.org
NB: Although there are kids in the cast, this is a PG13 show if that designation still exists. Maybe by now it’s PG6.