BWW Review: FUN HOME Shakes the Foundations at Theatre Under The Stars
FUN HOME is the bravest production anyone has ever seen at Theatre Under the Stars, and unfortunately it won't sell out like most of their runs. The show will be a tough sell, because it defies every convention you can imagine. It's a deeply emotional musical telling the story of a lesbian girl as she navigates her way through life with a closeted gay father. The Broadway Production won the Tony in 2015 for Best Musical as well as top honors for its book and score. It is a handsome show, acted expertly, and it will move anyone lucky enough to connect with its take on what it is like to be queer in the world. Musical theatre patrons clamoring to see GREASE aren't going to get it, but bravo to TUTS for bringing this to Houston. It's smart, it's immaculate, and it's one of the best things you will see this year.
The source material for this work is a confessional graphic novel from cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who produced her art to deal with the feelings of her dysfunctional relationship with her father. It seems an unlikely place to start for a musical, but this one isn't your average song and dance fest. FUN HOME features music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, and direction by Sam Gold. It explores the journey of Alison at 10 (small Alison), in college (medium Alison) and as an adult looking back (narrator Alison). But like the graphic novel, it explores three timelines simultaneously in poetic fragments that add up to a journey of self discovery and acceptance. There is a great tragedy that defines and illuminates everything, the suicide of Alison's father that occurs sometime in her college years. The entire show is haunted by this event, and it gives FUN HOME its dramatic bite right from the start.
When I walked into the Hobby Center at first I lamented that perhaps FUN HOME would have been better at a smaller more intimate house. The set was sparse - some scattered furniture and the band onstage. Even the first couple of numbers seemed too small for the big stage, but then amazing things happened. As the emotions got larger so did the settings and lights. There is a breathtaking transformation that will amaze audiences at each performance when it happens. FUN HOME belongs here at one of the largest stages Houston has to offer.
The cast is top-notch, and they are a touring ensemble chosen especially for this production. They don't disappoint, and manage to bring to Houston an experience that equals or surpasses what Broadway audiences enjoyed earlier. The narrator Alison is handled well by Kate Shindle who has an amazingly clear voice and a pragmatic approach to the material. She plays a lesbian finally comfortable in her own skin with grace and dignity. Abby Corrigan gets the hardest role of Medium Alison who is conflicted, but she's well up to the task. She's appropriately doubtful in everything except the gorgeous voice she gives to the songs. Carly Gold is Little Alison (some performances played by Jadyn Schwartz), and she gives a spunky take on the youngest and most vulnerable stage of the character. The three Alisons have to perform as a unit, and they achieve this with an ease that defies the Herculean task of three people playing the same role often simultaneously. They make FUN HOME work, and they are great to watch.
Robert Petkoff is heartbreaking yet powerfully unsentimental as Bruce, the father who just can't accept who he really is. Susan Moniz matches him note for note as the sorrowful wife who is stuck in a no win situation with a gay husband and several kids to raise. Caroline Murrah is a standout as Alison's first love named Joan as well. She manages to make her role wise and informed throughout. Robert Hager plays multiple conquests of Alison's father, and he is sexy and strong in both presence and vocal delivery. Henry Boshart and Luke Barbato Smith get to be cute as buttons as Alison's brothers, and they dance and sing as well as their adult counterparts. There's no weak link, and everyone delivers honest and earnest performances of a very challenging work.
FUN HOME reminds me of a solid Sondheim show with the same sense of revelation FALSETTOS had when it debuted. This has to be the first major musical that centers around an unapologetically lesbian narrative that landed on Broadway. The songs are intricate, the emotions run deep, and the material is challenging to its audience. I noted a couple of opening night walk outs, but they were people who were not prepared for what unfolded before them. They wanted a night of "easy theatre" - a gentle, family friendly toe tapper that settled for dazzle rather than depth. They left too damn early, because had they stayed the entire hour and and a half they would have discovered something far more satisfying. FUN HOME is a rich journey that more than pays off should you invest in the whole run time. If you're daring and if you're smart you'll go.
FUN HOME runs at the Hobby Center through May 28th. Tickets can be purchased through Theatre Under the Stars at their web site at www.tuts.com . You can also call their box office at (713) 558-TUTS (8887).