BWW Review: FUN HOME at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
FUN HOME (the musical) is, according to KC Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Stuart Carden, "the most important new musical theater piece" of the last decade. 2015 American Theatre Wing voters agreed by rewarding FUN HOME with Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Lead Actor, and Best Director.
FUN HOME is a non-linear coming-of-age tale from the successful graphic novel by gay cartoonist Alison Bechdel. It tells the mainly dark family saga of Bechdel's childhood and college years as seen through the adult Alison's (Lauren Braton) memories of earlier times.
Alison hails from Beech Creek a small town of under 1000 people in rural Pennsylvania. It is the kind of a place where everyone knows and hides secrets. Alison's nuclear family consists of a Dad, a Mom, young Alison, and a brace of younger brothers. Dad Bruce (Jonathan Raviv) is the town's high school English teacher, funeral director, and historical building re-constructor. Mom Helen (Mariand Torres) is a pretty lady, musically talented, but supremely frustrated. She is, however, anxious to please her fussy husband and raise a typical god fearing family.
Young Alison is played by Delilah Rose Pellow. She already knows she is somehow different from other little girls. Dad Bruce clearly dotes on her. He lives with his own demons, but like the Mom would prefer it if young Alison grew up to be a wife and Mom.
The story's veiled secret is that Bruce is a closeted homosexual. Wife Helen and local authorities have both covered for Bruce his whole life. He tries to be a good Dad, but is something of a predator who seeks partners from among former students and even some underage boys. Bruce attempts a façade, but by the time college age Alison leaves home she is confused.
Helen has known about Bruce's preferences since early on in their marriage. During military service in Europe, Helen meets Bruce's former lover during a trip to Paris. She chooses to stay in the marriage while living a separate life and keeps up appearances. As Alison nears adulthood, Helen is nearing the end of her tolerance.
It has also become obvious to Bruce that a college age Alison (Ellen Soraya Nikbakht) may be gay. He subtly attempts to free her from the chains of conformity that have bound him so uncomfortably in a small town. He shares classic books that describe the gay lifestyle. It does not take long before Alison figures out who she is. She takes a lover at school named Joan (Allison Jones) and announces her awakening to her parents by letter.
Back in Beech Creek, the living situation has deteriorated. Bruce has fallen into a deep depression. The family sees less and less of him. He has purchased a ghost house for rehab, but is in reality just looking for a place to hide. Helen worries about his well-being and health, but it is too late.
Alison journeys home from school to introduce Joan and to have a heart to heart talk with her Mom and Dad. It does not go well. Bruce spirals. Eventually, he walks out in front of a moving truck and commits suicide.
As memories tend to be non-linear, so too is this show. The adult Alison remembers and scenes ping pong between childhood episodes and later ones during college years. The logic appears random.
Everyone associated with FUN HOME is excellent. All three Alisons are super performers. The parents, Helen and Bruce, are consummate pros. The actress playing Joan displays a special subtlety which layers her performance.
The thematic to FUN HOME is very dark, but there are a few lighter moments. As kids, young Alison and her brothers play hide and seek inside the caskets at the funeral home while Dad attempts a sale to a bereaved family member. The kids attempt a musical radio commercial for the funeral home. College age Alison shares the special joy as a result of her first love experience.
There are also times of great pathos. Helen explains her life choices to her daughter in the moving "Days and Days." We hear how hard Bruce's life has been as he laments "Edges of the World" near the end of the play.
Multiple sets are positioned on a silent turntable that encompasses most of the large stage area. The settings are very well done. Anthony T. Edwards as conductor and musical director offers contributions that are almost flawless.
Has adult Alison come to a sense of peace by the end of this single act, ninety-six minute performance? Has Alison's life moved toward some sort of resolution? The 2015 Tony voters thought that it had. I will leave that determination to you individual audience members. I do promise you excellent and powerful performances.
FUN HOME continues at the KC Repertory's Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus through February 16. Tickets are available on the KC Rep website www.kcrep.org or by telephone at 816-235-2700.
Photos courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theater and Don Ipock.