Here’s a central message of the musical “Fun Home”: Even if you polish something for hours, and make it look shiny and appealing, it still might be a fake.
Or here’s another takeaway: “Fun Home” itself can mean a lot of things. It can mean your house contains the exact opposite of fun, the way you might say ‘We sure do have a fun home!’ in exasperation when you mean anything but. It can also be an abbreviation for funeral home, and there’s also one of those in the musical, which is based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel and adapted for the stage adaption by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.
It sure sounds like a bunch of fun, right?
What: TheatreSquared’s “Fun Home”
When: Wed-Sun through Sept. 17
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Tickets: Call 479-443-5600 or visit theatre2.org
TheatreSquared’s version of the 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, running in Fayetteville through Sept. 17, is indeed fun. It’s also sad and charming and compelling and troubling. It is frequently, but not always, a force of nature and one of the most totally engrossing new theatrical works I’ve watched in recent years. It’s about 100 minutes, with no intermission, but it feels faster than that. When this speeding truck gets moving, it’s hard to stop.
In the musical, which is based on Bechdel’s real life, we watch three versions of Alison, sometimes all onstage simultaneously (and all wearing low-top Converse shoes). There’s Small Alison who struggles under the weight of her father’s outsized expectations. There’s Medium Alison, a freshman in college who is discovering her sexuality. And there’s present-day Alison, who is working through a memoir and trying to understand her Fun Home and her father and herself. Alison has a lot to work through, frankly. But so does everyone else on stage. Among many strong performances in this current production is the one by Rob Sutton as Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel. Bruce is a complicated person, and character, simultaneously serving as a funeral home director, English teacher, historic home preservationist and pseudo-secretive adulterer. To feel any sympathy for him at all is a credit to Sutton, and he pulls it off throughout the entirety of the show. We also feel the appropriate amount of disgust for his actions, and for his role in the family drama, particularly as it relates to Alison. Many of the performances are understated their number of lines, but not in stage time. Present-day Alison (played by Christiana Cole) hovers around much of the action, saying nothing but looking intrigued as her life plays back before her eyes. It’s a real talent to look engaged but be just outside the main action for so long.
The show is a musical, but a dialogue-heavy one. We go long chunks of times between songs, and when we do come back to a musical number, it frequently repeats a theme from before. I think I like that concept – it makes the songs feel important, and it makes it feel like they are being offered because it’s important, not because they are supposed to be there. There are several scene-stealers among the songs, but I think “Changing My Major” might be the warmest and funniest of them. It’s The Lonely Island meets Broadway, and I mean that as a compliment.
Credit should also be given to the almost-onstage orchestra that accompanied the songs. They offered a soundtrack with just the right amount of oomph to be heard but never enough to steal away from the vocalists. And credit to the stage design, which twisted and turned to provide surprises and hid the orchestra right in the center of the action but sometimes just out of view.
There’s also the matter of the young actors in the show, as a trio of performers takes the roles of Small Alison and her two brothers, Christian and John. It’s hard (and hard-headed) to criticize actors of that age, so I’ll pass through this quickly. They had an intimidating amount of dialogue to learn, and although I don’t know the script, I don’t believe any lines were missed. It was indeed impressive. I just wish I could have heard them better. I wrote in my notes the song-and-dance routine where the children were most prominently used reminded me of the Ewoks in “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” Like the Ewoks, these children were impossibly cute, but I’m just not sure why the musical needed that scene.
We do sorely need new musicals, particularly ones that challenge us to think about our changing world and our journeys towards the person we’ve become. “Fun Home,” meanwhile, will likely make a journey to many stages in the future. It has staying power. It’s not always fun to visit home, but it sure helps us know who we are.