With a tender and luminous ‘Fun Home,’ StageWorks illustrates the power of musical theater
It’s so easy to praise “Fun Home” for being important — the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist — that it’s easy to forget just how good it is. I love the way this cheeky adaptation flings its arms around the drawings and captions of Alison Bechdel’s famed graphic memoir and makes them live and breathe in the altogether different world of the stage. I revel in the deep and conflicted characters — not just the pivotal role of Alison herself, but also her father and mother, whose transgressions and heartaches have been (heartbreakingly) immortalized. I admire the way Bechdel’s memories of her dysfunctional childhood never bog down in the melodramatic but instead trace a spare, elegant arc of human dignity and resilience. I applaud the way the play nuzzles and flirts with memory, never striving for the authoritative but instead offering an unabashedly impressionistic picture of a life. I smile at the humor. And hurt at the tears.
Video: Thani Brant gives an in-studio performance of “Changing My Major” from “Fun Home.” It’s a bonus clip from the July episode of “The Munro Review” on CMAC.
Most of all, I love the way the score (music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Lisa Kron) amplifies and enhances the emotional power of the material. For days after seeing the opening night performance of the fine new StageWorks Fresno production (which continues through July 15), a song from the show rattled around in my head. It might not be the one you’d expect. It wasn’t “Ring of Keys,” the beautiful exploration of burgeoning sexuality performed by Small Alison (played by a terrific Novi Alexander) as she melts at the sight of a butch delivery woman. And it wasn’t “Changing My Major,” the bursting-with-first-love comic showstopper sung by Medium Alison (a wonderful Thani Brant), just after her first sexual experience.
No, the song is “Days and Days,” and it is sung by the long-suffering mother, Helen (Amalie Larsen, in a performance of astonishing rigidity and tenderness). She sings it near the end of the show as she contemplates how life can sneak up and overtake you. Helen sings:
Days and days and days
Made of lunches
And car rides
And shirts and socks
And no one clocks the day you disappear.
It is an anthem for the passive — for the rule-players, for those who quietly sigh and make do. It’s also the song that is everything Alison is not, and in that way, it’s what you might call a reverse anthem for that character — and speaks to me as the theme of the show. We meet the Adult Alison (Haley White, who brings a contemplative ache to her role as narrator), when she’s 43, the same age as when her father, Bruce (a sterling Terry Lewis), killed himself. He was gay. So is Alison. We learn all that in the first few minutes.
The memories aren’t chronological, but flit between Alison as a 9-year-old and an 18-year old growing up in a funeral home (the family business), and then to the present day. All the while she sketches furiously, chronicling it all for the world to experience. Sometimes all three actors are on stage together. Director J. Daniel Herring stages the production in the round. His seamless blocking mirrors the way the play’s timeline effortlessly ebbs and flows. The thrall of memory is key to his vision, and he achieves something intriguing in the way he often brings the Alisons onto the stage at the same time, reinforcing the idea that a person might be vastly different at 43 than she was at 9, but the building blocks will always remain.
Kris Cadieux’s clever set, dominated by a lamp store’s worth of hanging fixtures, captures the musty Old World ambiance of the family’s rambling house — I love how the representation of a piano glides down from the ceiling to create that instrument’s central presence — and the script’s college setting. Eric Armstrong’s lighting design is nuanced and evocative, though I was distracted by the surges of illumination from the hanging lamps near the end of the show; it seemed a little like dramatic overkill. Lisa Schumacher’s ‘70s costumes offer a nice period touch.
(And I almost forgot: Musical director Tim Fletcher and his fine pit band add immeasurably to the live experience, and the balance between musicians and singers is quite good — except for a few times when Brant was a little hard to hear — thanks to sound designer Kyle Jensen.)
The acting in the show is often exquisite. The three Alisons polish different facets of the character, making her even more complicated. As Small Alison, Alexander has spunk and a spine, jousting with her father when need be, her childhood sweetness speckled with grit. Brant — who is stellar — tempers Middle Alison’s angst with a youthful radiance that makes her glow. (Her “Changing My Major” first-sex moment, recounted as she’s dressed in men’s briefs and a polo shirt, is simultaneously funny and deeply moving.)
White, as Adult Alison, brings a wry strength and fierce emotional timbre to the character. In one of my few quibbles about the production, I felt on opening night that White spent too much time in cheerfully nostalgic default mode as she fulfilled her role as observer/narrator. To me, that demeanor sometimes brought the experience closer to sentimentality than it should be.
Vocally, Alexander and Brant are gorgeous. And while White is less of a trained singer than her two younger partners, I always connected with her emotionally. (In fact, her performance of the song “Maps” made me cry.)
A pert and pleasing Madeline Rydberg, as Alison’s girlfriend, Joan, is a kick, and Adam Chavez is strong in a number of male ensemble roles. Lucas Stephens and Leo Jimesanagnos are cute as Alison’s younger brothers. (It was hard, alas, to understand some of the funny lyrics they sing with Small Alison in the song “Welcome to the Fun Home,” and Vanessa Gonzalez’s choreography felt a little ragged.)
And then there’s Terry Lewis as Bruce. I could go on for hundreds of words about this beautiful performance. I’ve seen Lewis in probably more roles than any actor in my career (or would Gordon Moore take that honor? — perhaps they should have a cage match), and “Fun Home” just might be his best performance yet. His Bruce is sour, brittle and ragingly mean; yet in his phone conversations with Alison in college, we occasionally glimpse such tenderness and pride that he could be Father of the Year. Lewis hurls himself into this role with bark and venom. A lesser actor could have allowed that inner fusion to consume him, but in Lewis’ hands, the character is so much more than that. While Alison is the brain of the play, her relationship with Bruce is its heart, and he emerges as a conflicted man in pain, perhaps whose greatest blunder was being born a little too early in the 20th century.
Still, it is the mother who lingered most after my viewing experience. Bruce wasn’t around to witness his family’s dysfunction become a popular-culture milestone, but Helen’s life was on display after the publication of her daughter’s book. (She died five months before the play opened.) When Larsen sings “Days and Days,” she explains she did the best she could, and that she did it with love. As we draw our ways through life on our own complicated journeys, that’s something to treasure.
“Fun Home” resumes 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 5, at the Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North Performing Arts Center, 2770 E. International Ave. It runs July 5-8 and 12-15. Rated PG-13 for language and adult content. No intermission, and no latecomers will be seated. Tickets are $28 general, $25 students and seniors.
CABARET: The traditional StageWorks cabaret will be held 10 p.m. Friday, July 6. Tickets are $10.
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