Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical, just like Bechdel's illustrated work, focuses on her family and more importantly her coming out as a lesbian when she was in college and the suicide of her closeted gay father Bruce. While revealing these details in a review may seem like spoilers, all of this information is given to the audience at the end of the opening number and for the rest of the show the audience, just like the adult Alison, struggles to piece together the events in Alison's past to determine if her coming out, which happened right before her father's suicide, had anything to do with her father's death.
While the two main characters of this story are gay, Fun Home has a universality to it that expands it way beyond a story only about characters who are struggling with their sexuality. Just about everyone has looked back at events in their past to see how those moments formed their future and the person they are today and questioned if there was something they could have done differently or may have missed in order to change the past for the better.
Fun Home uses two interesting concepts to portray Alison's story. First, it's an intriguing memory play full of mystery as the older Alison, who is on stage for almost the entire show, looks back at the moments in her life. She is also documenting these moments by drawing them into the cartoon panels that she would turn into her graphic novel that the musical is based upon. Second, the show uses the brilliant theatrical conceit of having three different actresses play Alison at key impressionable ages in her life and weaves together events in her life in a non-linear fashion, which makes perfect sense since when anyone remembers memories from their past they are never in chronological order.
We see the 10-year-old Alison, who struggles to conform with the social norms of how she should dress and act as a young girl. She is also confused by her caring yet sometimes angry and demanding father, whom she clearly loves. We also witness the coming out of the college-age Alison who struggles to find some connection with her emotionally vacant parents and how the older Alison wonders if her sexual awakening and coming out was the catalyst for her closeted father's suicide.
The book and score for this musical also won Tony Awards and it's clear to see why. Lisa Kron's script is not only filled with heartache and humor but is also infused with an unflinching honesty. The score, with Jeanine Tesori's music and lyrics by Kron, is a tapestry of musical styles and repetitive themes that, with the book, expertly weave together the three ages of Alison with dialogue and lyrics that create nuanced, detailed and layered characters. They also don't cheat the ending by wrapping everything up with a big, bright and happy bow or having a big emotionally cathartic conclusion while also leaving some questions unanswered.
Director Robert Kolby Harper's staging masterfully connects the time periods of the musical together in a swift and seamless fashion with expert use of the beautiful and mostly transparent set design from Douglas Clarke. He also derives authentic portrayals from his exceptional cast who deliver soaring vocals under Jeff Kennedy's music direction.
As the older Alison, Becca Ayers' inquisitive nature and sense of urgency works incredibly well to portray this woman who is attempting to discover facts and insight by observing moments in her past. Her heartfelt narration is filled with humor and pain. While she is mainly an onlooker for the majority of the show, when she is pulled into the narrative for the song "Telephone Wire" and steps back in time to replay the last car ride she took with her father, Ayers' desperate looks and aching pleas as she tries to find a way to connect with her father make for a painful and chilling moment that is infused with realism. It's also a perfectly relatable moment for anyone who has ever had something important to say to someone they love but doesn't quite know how to say it.
Rusty Ferracane is equally as good as Bruce, a man who wants everything to be perfect and polished on the outside, including the way he is perceived, but underneath, the pain and the truth start to chip away at the cracks just as the adult Alison is beginning to piece together the memories of her past to find the truth about herself, her father and her family. Ferracane masterfully combines the many layers of this highly intelligent yet troubled man who is easily agitated and also has moments of self-loathing. It is a very unlikable character, yet from Ferracane's touching portrayal we have no problem in understanding how, in the 1970s, the pain and suffering of being a closeted gay man forced him to repress his feelings and made him lash out and act the way he did.
Olivia Fearey is exquisite and full of charm as Young Alison. Her performance of "Ring of Keys," which portrays the first moment she realizes she is different from other girls when she finds she has something in common with a butch delivery woman, is a beautiful and thrilling moment of self-discovery. As Medium Alison, Kaitlyn Russell's exuberant performance of "Changing My Major" perfectly captures the joy of one's first sexual experience in a comical and touching way. Fearey and Russell's realistic portrayals also allow us to see the frustration, pain and joy Alison has experienced at different ages in dealing with her mostly emotionless parents.
As Alison's mother Helen, Elyse Wolf creates a nuanced portrayal of this stern, neglected and suffering woman. Her performance of "Days and Days" painfully shows how compromises, neglect, complicity and the simple day to day household duties can engulf a wife and mother who finds she has disappeared into the shadow of her husband and has become virtually unrecognizable. Lauren McKay and Drake Sherman do quite well in supporting parts and Ian Gray and Griffin Raia add moments of fun as Alison's two younger brothers.
While Fun Home's nonlinear structure and themes may at first prove to be a bit of a challenge for those looking for more upbeat musical comedies, it has a lot of depth to it and many rich and rewarding characters and situations that are incredibly identifiable. With an excellent cast and flawless direction, Phoenix Theatre presents an excellent production of this highly accessible work about coming of age while also coming to grips with the events and truths of your painful past. It's a show about painful memories but also one about hope, love and understanding.
Fun Home, through December 2, 2018, at the Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (02-254-2151
Director/Musical Staging: Robert Kolby Harper
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.