Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Fun Home is based on the 2006 graphic novel/memoir by Alison Bechdel, which chronicles Bechdel's sexual awakening as a lesbian and her complicated relationship with her father. The musical opened on Broadway in the spring of 2015 and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.
The book by Lisa Kron has 43-year-old graphic novelist/cartoonist Alison searching for inspiration for her biographical project by revisiting memories of her childhood and of her realization of her homosexuality as a freshman in college. The show uses three actresses to portray Alison, each at a different age. It's a complex story, not only because the action rotates among three time periods, but also because the relationships are complicated. Self-discovery is a major theme for all three versions of the character, with moments of humor, joy, devastatingly emotional heartbreak, and intellectual introspection. The storytelling feels somewhat jumbled, but that's part of the charm of the show.
The score features lyrics by Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori. Ms. Kron's lyrics are precise, vivid and contemplative, seamlessly transitioning from dialogue to sung words. Ms. Tesori provides a splendid mix of period pastiche, emotional ballads, and traditional musical theater melodies. Unlike most other successful modern-day Broadway composers, Ms. Tesori provides a unique sound for each of her projects, adapting to the material instead of the other way around. Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, Or Change, Shrek, and Fun Home each possess their own musical language, without many clues that they were all written by the same person. Song highlights here include "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," "Changing My Major," "Ring of Keys," and "Telephone Wire."
Director D. Lynn Meyers provides a tender and accessible staging of the material, and beautiful transitions. She also extracts multi-layered performances from her actors. The limited yet apt choreography by Patti James is featured primarily in two 1970s "Partridge Family"-style numbers. Steve Goers leads a great sounding six-piece band which is housed above the stage.
Fun Home features frequent company performers, returning veterans, and newcomersall providing impeccable acting and powerful yet nuanced singing. Natalie Bird is the oldest Alison, and she conveys the character's strong desire to discover more about her family and their secrets. Recent CCM grad Emily Fink is quite endearing as Medium Alison, capturing the humor, confusion and joy of an unexpected sexual awakening and new love. Fourth-grader McKenna James Farmer is delightful as Small Alison, providing depth to the role and the stage presence of an established pro. All three get one great song each, and each provides a stellar rendition.
Charlie Clark returns to ETC after being away for a while and is magnificent as Alison's father Bruce. While the character is manipulative and deceitful, Mr. Clark is still able to find the humanity of the role. He is a powerful singer but also blends extremely well with others during some notable musical moments. This may be Sara Mackie's best performance at ETC. As Alison's mother Helen she captures the tortured nature of the character and impresses with her performance of "Days and Days." First-rate performances are also supplied by Jude Walker (Joan) and Max Meyers (multiple rolesall quite distinct), as well as juvenile performers Henry Weghorst (John) and Espen Wells-Jordan (Christian).
Brian C. Mehring's gorgeously detailed and handsome set is perfect for the show, and the turntable at stage left is ingeniously designed and used. His lighting is also quite enchanting. The costumes by Reba Senske could do more to evoke the period but are fun and well-suited. Matt Callahan's sound is well-balanced and clear.
Fun Home is the first of several lesser-known musicals receiving prominent productions this month in CincinnatiCincinnati Playhouse in the Park's Once On This Island and the touring production of Come from Away at the Aronoff Center are othersand is quite the standard-bearer at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, thanks to brilliant work both onstage and behind the scenes.
Fun Home, through September 28, 2019, at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine Street, Cincinnati OH. For information and tickets, visit www.ensemblecincinnati.org or call 513-421-3555.