BWW Review: FUN HOME is Viscerally Compelling at Actor's Express
As one of the few unlucky people who hadn't yet seen FUN HOME, heard any of the music, or read the comic book that it's based on, I walked into Actor's Express only vaguely knowing that it was a story about a family and someone was probably gay. I left an emotional wreck in tears with a whole new understanding of the gay experience and a healthy appreciation for the Bechdel test.
Actor's Express has created a fundamentally visceral production of the Tony-award winning musical that's impossible to look away from and a thrill from start to finish. As a straight woman, some of the major themes and moments of the play are difficult for me to really understand and totally connect with. Despite that, however, Actor's Express's intimate staging and killer cast frequently had me in tears over Alison's heartbreaking story.
Often an unsung hero of theatre, the lighting in this show is magnificent to behold. While the characters struggle with their sexuality, honesty, and identity, the lighting makes full use of an entire spectrum of rainbow-colored hues in order to show us all of the feelings and emotions the characters have but can't express. Newfound romances and rapacious lusts are swathed in a hot red, electric meetings and exuberant wishing are speckled with inviting green, poignant self-control and desperately just-missed connections are cloaked in confounding indigo. The deft choices of FUN HOME's lighting create an unforgettably brilliant production.
One of the biggest plot points of the show is that Alison's father committed suicide at 43 - the same age she is now when the play begins. Jeff McKerley is captivating as Alison's father Bruce, but on stage, he does read older than 43. You forget sometimes how important that is to the story until Alison mentions it again. McKerley's white hair doesn't detract from his storytelling, but it is easy to lose that element overall because of it. Alison's perception of her father changes as she grows and McKerley's performance seems to mimic the audience's growing understanding of his character. At first, he is a powerful and sympathetic presence but as the show goes on, McKerley leans on Bruce's inner toil to bring out the more despicable and desperate side of the character. The transition is imperceptibly smooth thanks to McKerley's finesse and it fosters a growing sense drastic change that's just around the corner.
One of the most intense moments is the song "Edges of the World" sung by Bruce in the 11th hour of the show. The song is Bruce's spiral into mental illness, contemplation of suicide, and eventual tragic death. Jeff McKerley gives a gut-wrenchingly passionate performance and leaves the audience breathless. The song ends with Bruce in the middle of the road. A truck horn sounds as the lights flash to an unbearable brightness before everything goes silent and black. I was not expecting Bruce's suicide to be so incredibly visceral that it borderlines on graphic but I was left shaking in my seat after the lights went dark. That moment alone brought me further into the story than I thought I could go.
Natasha Drena as Helen is an emotional and vocal force to be reckoned with on stage. Her full, exquisite voice reverberates throughout the small space and makes it impossible not to feel something as she sings. As Helen, Drena creates a multitude of desperation, regret, love, and undiscernible emotion with her tightly-controlled composure and the roiling storm simmering just underneath her eyes. "Days and Days" was the first time the tears in my eyes left and got all over my sweater.
Sharing a character can't be as easy as Rhyn McLemore Saver, Marcia Cunning, and Eden Mew make it look. The three of them seem to have some mind-reading abilities to so seamlessly bring Alison to life. Together they've created a spellbinding progression of idiosyncratic character ticks that are so effective I had no doubt in my mind that they were all the same person. Mew's over-enthusiastic nature to Cunning's jumpy awkwardness to Saver's occasional nervous tic progress together to tell give the audience a full understanding of Alison's journey.
Making their character even more effective, the three actors have also cultivated a unified vocal expression that brings the same character quality to every song they sing whether alone or together. Saver effortlessly leads us on a narrative journey with "Maps," Cunning perfectly captures the highs of college independence in "Changing My Major," and Mew performs a near inhuman feat by nailing "Ring of Keys." The three of them blend perfectly to close out the show with "Flying Away."
Vinny Montague as John and Alex Newberg as Christian make picture-perfect brothers. Their dynamic duo is a joy to watch as they boogie and fly across the stage up to who knows what. Montague's mischievous antics remind me of my own little brother and Newberg's commanding skill over both the room and his own voice creates an exuberant performance.
However, I was pulled out of the story once during the show. While Bruce seduces Roy as his family goes on about their day downstairs, it wasn't the obviously careless affair that took me out of the moment, but how Juan Carlos Unzueta as Roy gets all hot and bothered. From where I was sitting, Unzueta looked like he was in deeply uncomfortable pain rather than overcome with lust. I knew he wasn't being hurt but I also couldn't wait until it had resolved so I could stop worrying about Unzueta.
Overall, FUN HOME is a masterclass in storytelling that Actor's Express tells with a visceral flare and immense talent.
FUN HOME is playing at Actor's Express now through February 16th and is a Tony Award-winning musical. It has a run time of 110 minutes with no intermission and contains adult language and situations. There is a Drag Queen Story Hour on January 26th before the show. Get your tickets here!