Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron
American cartoonist Alison Bechdel turned her own eccentric and troubled family story into a moving graphic novel (named one of the best books of 2006), and then came librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron and musician Jeanine Tesori, who seized the opportunity to turn domestic and personal dysfunction into a riveting musical that mixes pop with ballads and Sondheim-like song-dramas. Fun Home won deserved Broadway fame in 2015, and now the Musical Stage Company has put it on the Toronto theatrical map with a production that is probing, nervous, exultant, sweet, melancholy, and suffused with pathos without wallowing in self-pity.
Considered “the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian,” Fun Home has far more going for itself than its chief protagonist’s sexual orientation. An ironically entitled, explicit memory-play that has ostensibly been created out of Alison Bechdel’s memories and detailed journals she kept since the age of 10, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, it chronicles her childhood and the years preceding and following her gay father’s suicide. There are three Alisons in the musical or, rather, three ages of the same character: nine-year old Small Alison, Medium Alison, the college student, and adult Alison (feeling “stuck” at age 43) who literally looks over the shoulder of each of her younger selves as they experience various vagaries of life, and sketching scenes from her past in order to make sense of raw life. The father, Bruce, is a high school teacher who likes restoring old houses and who runs a funeral parlour (the fun home of the title) on the side. He is sometimes nastily authoritarian about order and neatness (his first song is about white damask), though his own private life is ruckled by his secret homosexuality. The libretto encapsulates things with staccato brevity, as the adult Alison remarks: “He was gay. I was gay. He killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
Camilla Koo’s scenic décor expresses the father’s urge towards maintaining at least a façade of neat order by rigid straight lines of a minimalist set, with white walls and a green door, before morphing into a suggestion of a realistic home. The white walls of the opening link to the adult Alison’s vocation as cartoonist because they could be taken as a blank sketchpad for drawings or a white screen for her mental projections. The musical intertwines past and present, and the score and lyrics are dynamic interrogations in pursuit of certitude. Jeanine Tesori’s combination of musical styles are an ambivalent mix of anger and love, often creating (like Sondheim) a clever dissonance in multiple-part songs interspersed with pastiche numbers (a parody of the Partridge Family and a Jackson Five celebration). There are two numbers about sexual awakening (college-student Alison’s hymn to Joan in “I’m Changing my Major” and her ode to a striking delivery woman), and all these are part of a unified totality to articulate the principal themes and drive both the comedy and drama.
It is a textured musical that holds fast to the modern trend in musicals to be exploratory, even diffuse as they explore themes that were hardly ever touched by old-style musicals. Yet, it is not without a fair share of zany humour as it balances the light and the dark, the joyous and the sad. It tells a story with remarkable conciseness, and this Canadian production honours the story with some remarkable performances. Eric Morin plays multiple roles, the most important probably being that of the young man who feeds Bruce’s covert sexual urge. The actor, though, looks too ripe for this part, though this is not to deny his acting talent. Eleven-year old Hannah Levinson plays young Alison with an appealing mixture of fun and frustration, delighting at balancing herself like an aeroplane on her father’s legs one moment, yet begging for his attention at another. Fuelled by irrepressible energy, she and her two younger brothers (played with a sense of naïve mischief by Jasper Lincoln and Liam MacDonald) can play in coffins, but Alison is a rebel at heart, especially when it comes to displaying her distaste for a “stupid” dress she is forced to wear by her father. Levinson gives a remarkably true and touching performance, and her singing is superb, especially in “Ring of Keys,’ with a display of amazing vocal and acting virtuosity. Sara Farb as Medium Alison maintains the high standard with her knockout solo “I’m Changing My Major,” a candidly comic coming-out number, giddily ardent yet nervously insecure about her falling helplessly in love with butch activist Joan (Sabryn Rock). Farb has never been more moving than in this role. And holding firm as the adult Alison, bespectacled Laura Condlln is almost a lookalike of Rachel Maddow, though very correctly without that journalist’s self-assured loquacity and irony. Condlln is the conscience of the piece, creatively questioning as she gives shape and substance to her ghosts of memory. And she sings far better than I expected, shining in the pointillist “Telephone Wire.”
Another standout number is Cynthia Dale’s rendition of “Days and Days,” Alison’s mother’s tortured cry from the heart about her dysfunctional marriage to a man tormented and tormenting. However, her role is thin and Dale gives rather mechanical line-readings at times. Evan Buliung as her husband Bruce acts with prickly edginess, though, ultimately, he misses achieving pathos—perhaps because he allows the character’s external mask to obscure the inner human vulnerability.
Robert McQueen’s production gleams with intelligence, taste, and measured control, maintaining admirable tension without becoming glum or overly sombre. Its only significant shortcoming is the lack of powerful sublimity at the end, but it has more than its fair share of virtues. In fact, it deserves to enter the history books as one of the best musical productions ever done in Toronto.
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