BWW Review: Another Excellent Season Begins with FUN HOME at ENSEMBLE THEATRE CINCINNATI
FUN HOME at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Fun Home, the beloved and critically lauded autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, which was adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, is playing throughout September at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. D. Lynn Meyers mentions in her director's notes that she has been waiting for four long years to direct this play, having fallen in love with Jeanine Tesori's score at first listen. I had read Bechdel's graphic memoir years ago and after hearing that Lisa Kron, whose work I admire, had written the book and lyrics, I too was anxious for a production of Fun Home to make its way to Cincinnati. I'm so glad that it landed in ETC's capable hands since they made it well worth the wait.
The musical tells the story of Bechdel's childhood and young adulthood, culminating in (spoiler alert) her father's death. Her father was a charming, mercurial force in her life, influencing (or controlling) the way her family thought and worked. He also was hiding his sexuality, having (not so) secret affairs with men. When Alison discovers that she, too, is gay, the dynamic between them changes. Because he dies very shortly after her own revelation, this play (and the book it is drawn from) acts as a eulogy for her father and an examination of memory.
The plot jumps around in time, with three versions of Alison - adult, child (Small Alison), and young adult (Medium Alison) - sometimes appearing concurrently on stage. The show takes a moment to find its footing but really begins to take off when Medium Alison (Emily Fink) sings "I'm Changing My Major to Joan," after her first sexual experience with a woman. Fink, a CCM alum based in New York, sings beautifully, with the gusto and charm one would expect from a young woman who has fallen in love for the first time. From that point onward, the production comes into its own, with everyone firing on all cylinders.
Charlie Clark plays the many layers of Bechdel's father, Bruce, making him likable despite his being a selfish and difficult man. Bechdel's memories and Kron's adaptation of them don't fall into the trap of seeing things from a narrow point of view. Bruce is neither vilified nor worshipped but is drawn as a very real, complicated, and conflicted person. Clark is able to exploit this as he creates a very realistic Bruce whom we are free to love and hate.
Small Alison is a magnificent role for a very young performer. It carries a lot of responsibility in the play, and McKenna James Farmer is adorably up to the task. Her big number, "Ring of Keys" is a song about a striking moment of recognition for Alison, when as a child, she sees a woman (whom Adult Alison now perceives to be a lesbian) delivering boxes to the local diner. Farmer's performance is touching and unselfconscious.
Fun Home makes us wait until we're almost ¾ of the way through the show to really start ramping up the stakes for all of the characters. Finally, Alison's mother Helen pushes off the smothering blanket of patient mother and wife, and tells us her side of the story with the blistering "Days and Days." Sara Mackie as Helen builds the song masterfully, and just when you think she has nowhere else to go, she builds it more, blowing your hair back with emotion and power. Bravo!
As always, Brian c. Mehring nails the set (no pun intended). He captures the museum-like size and quality of Alison's childhood home on ETC's smallish stage. He provides smooth transitions between several locations (Bechdel Funeral Home, Alison's dorm room, etc.) with a revolving room stage left, and cleverly tucks modern day Alison's drawing studio up in a corner stage right.
Steve Goers does a marvelous job as Music Director, and the six-piece band made up of violin, bass, drums, cello, keyboard, and reeds was excellent. At times, the sound balance seemed a little bit off - sometimes too loud, sometimes singing drowning out speech - but I imagine this is something that will improve as the run continues.
Fun Home is a moving and thoughtful musical that will bring up all kinds of emotions in audiences. It's well worth seeing and runs at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati August 31 - September 28th. Get your tickets here.