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Review: FUN HOME at TheaterWorks Hartford

This fabulous show has been extended through November 6th

Review: FUN HOME at TheaterWorks Hartford

The musical FUN HOME, based on Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir ("a family tragicomic") won five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical. And Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) made history by being the first female duo to win a Tony. Oh, and by the way, the musical was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

A terrific structure and numerous awards certainly don't always guarantee success, but this production, directed by Rob Ruggiero and staged in the ideally suited space that TheaterWorks provides, is a winner.

First, let's consider Bechdel's, and the musical's, title. Small Alison (a marvelous 10-year-old Skylar Lynn Matthews, with a big voice) and her two Young Brothers (a charming Myles Low and a winsome Sam Duncan) call their father's funeral business the Fun Home: "home" because the mortuary is literally part of their living space, and "fun" because, consciously or not, they play there in part to escape from the tensions simmering between their parents.

In one particularly winning scene, we see the kids perform a clever, hilarious commercial for the family business ("Come to the Fun Home"). Small Alison likes to nap in a satin-lined coffin, and only when her father asks her to attend him as he readies a body for viewing ("Hand me those scissors," he tells her, when the scissors are easily within his reach), do we, and she, begin to feel that the Fun Home isn't so much fun when Dad's there.

The children's dad, Bruce (played convincingly by Aaron Lazar), is an alternately distant and volatile husband and father, obsessive about renovating their dilapidated, historic house. Their mother, Helen (the heartbreaking Christiane Noll), is a shadowy figure who creates her own escape routes: acting in community theater and summer stock, playing the piano, and portraying, as best she can, the role of the dutiful wife ("Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue"). This last presents her toughest acting job because she knows that Bruce is gay: closeted to himself and to others, but at times sadistically open to her about his affairs.

We see Small Alison become Medium Alison (the sweet-voiced Julia Nightingale, in a complex and poignant performance), while the adult Alison (a moving Sarah Beth Pfeifer) watches and provides commentary. Yet what makes the show so fascinating is that the structure is non-linear, with Small Alison showing up at key moments throughout the evening and Medium Alison taking over at others. As all three women writers responsible for FUN HOME know so well, memory works that way.

Ruggiero's casting is perfect in most cases and in every case, interesting. Aaron Lazar is tall, dark, and handsome; when his Bruce looks in the mirror and assures himself that he's "still got it," his sexual preference is beside the point. He is a good-looking man who can attract whomever he wants. On the other hand, Lazar is truly frightening as the Bruce who threatens to hit Small Alison for not wearing her barrette or refusing to put on a party dress. And he's most frightening when portraying Bruce's pain as he realizes, in panic, that his latest house project is likely doomed, as is he: "Edges of the World."

Each Alison has a set-piece number that displays a realization, and here Ruggiero and Music Director Jeff Cox mesh beautifully in guiding their actors. Matthews' rendition of the fascinating "Ring of Keys" is a high point. Nightingale, as Medium Alison discovering sex with a woman for the first time, sings the wonderful "I'm Changing My Major," as she falls for the swaggering, sexy, and kind Joan (a fabulous Cameron Silliman). Adult Alison struggles to find a connection with her father, and Lazar captures Bruce's cold, terrified refusal in "Telephone Wire."

Ali Louis Bourzgui plays four roles and is convincing in all. And Noll, as Helen, sings one of the show's most musically sophisticated and harrowing numbers-a three-act play in song-"Days and Days."

Ruggiero has also hired a first-rate artistic team. Luke Cantarella has designed a beautiful set that seamlessly gives us numerous locations. Herin Kaputkin's costumes help each character express his/her essence. Rob Denton's lighting maintains realism when necessary and at other times takes us deep into a character's emotions. Joanna Lynne Staub's sound design, especially when cars are involved, have a surrounding effect that pulls us even further into the action. And finally, Camilla Tassi's projections, which often show us Bechdel's words as Adult Alison speaks/writes them, are haunting.

This is not only a marvelous production; it's a deeply emotional and complex experience. And it's an experience that is not to be missed.

Photos by Mike Marques

For tickets ($25-60), call TWH, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford at 860-527-7838 or online at Performances are Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. (with talk back), Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (mask required), Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (mask required) and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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