BWW Review: Deeply Moving FUN HOME Gets Intimate Staging at OC's Chance Theater
For people in the LGBTQ community, the act of coming out can often be a very difficult, sometimes scary, but ultimately quite liberating decision---that's, of course, approached differently by each individual person that decides to do so.
Some come to their realizations quicker and earlier than others, while some have their "A-ha" moments much later. Others choose to just accept their truth privately but hide it from the general public, mostly motivated by either shame or survival. Some even choose to repress their feelings altogether---an act that could prove more harmful than good. And then there are even some who do acknowledge that they are different, but refuse to apply a specific label on themselves.
However way they arrive at their conclusions, many may be fortunate enough to find the coming out process as a very easy one to do, especially when armed with confidence, an accepting support system, and a safe space to do so. Unfortunately for others, coming out is still a huge risk that may cause being rejected or ostracized by friends or family, or, worse, may invite increased prejudice, unfair financial or professional setbacks, or even emotional or physical harm.
No matter the methodology, the path from discovery to acknowledgement can be a long, often bumpy road.
For illustrator/artist Alison Bechdel, her coming out as a lesbian began as an exploration filled with giddy firsts but then was indeed a bumpy journey---made extra complicated by the shocking apparent suicide of her father, just weeks after she comes out to him while in college.
Their deeply complex father-daughter dynamic---marred mostly with their mutual inability to speak their real, unfiltered truths to one another---is the central narrative that drives the searingly poignant and emotionally absorbing musical FUN HOME, the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of Bechdel's 2006 autobiographical graphic memoir that dives right into this unique relationship via flashbacks of actual real-life events seen through the more hyper-aware lens of Alison as an adult in her 40's.
Jumping in time from her seemingly "fun" but sheltered home life as a young pre-teen to her expanding universe as a young woman away at college, FUN HOME explores the idea that people---try as they might to control what others see and hear---are not merely all about what they are on the surface. Humans, of course, are complex beings with many layers---so much so that sometimes we know alarmingly less than we think when it comes to the closest people in our lives.
This is certainly the repeated motif Alison observes not only with her own self-discoveries but also as she investigates and analyzes her relationship with her father---who, it turns out, is a complicated, very tortured and secretive man hindered (or, perhaps, motivated) by inner demons that only slightly and subtly peeked to the surface. Alison is left to wonder...were the signs there all along?
A genuinely moving musical drama with dark comedic overtones, FUN HOME features emotionally astute book and lyrics from Lisa Kron and sonically melodic music from Jeanine Tesori that impressed audiences and critics during its Broadway run and beyond. The show was last seen locally during its equally lauded first national tour stops a few years ago where it proved itself to be one of those musicals that elicits loving, ardent reactions despite not having the usual eye-popping, splashy, theatrically explosive razzle-dazzle of "big" shows that hoist witches in the air.
While Bechdel's very personal life story certainly succeeds when mounted on a large stage, presenting FUN HOME in the much smaller, more intimate footprint of a space like Chance Theater's Cripe Stage in Anaheim does feel like a much more appropriate and worthy venue for such a quiet, more personal narrative.
FUN HOME at its core seems tailor-made for smaller theaters, and thus, in this admirable new intimate theater production---which continues performances through March 1, 2020 under the thoughtful and attentive direction of Marya Mazo---the focus automatically gravitates towards the musical's rich, engrossing story, performed with great care by an impressive ensemble.
Visually, the production still manages to convey its appointed spaces within its smaller surroundings. Bradley Kaye's scenic designs---highlighted by abstract impressions of antique art and collectibles that surround the entire venue---stand in for the Bechdel home's museum-like interiors where surface beauty is seemingly regarded higher than the human occupants that actually reside in it (Of course, this facade is nothing more than overcompensation on the patriarch's part). Andrea Hellman's lighting designs creatively set moods and punctuate each space In Focus. Costumes designed by Bradley Lock help reiterate where the story is time-wise at any given moment.
While I definitely appreciated the intimacy afforded by the production, the show's staging set-up---which places the "stage" literally in the center as a lengthy rectangular corridor where stadium-tiered seats flank each long side---is, admittedly, both a pro and a con.
On the pro column, the relative proximities between the actors and the audience enables a truly intimate and almost immersive theatrical presentation, allowing us to become even closer observers of the drama and narrative happening literally in front of us. But on the negative side, however, there are plenty of moments---depending on which bank of seats you're sitting in---when an actor's back is facing towards you, basically preventing you from seeing the actor's full performance during pivotal scenes relaying important dialogue, lyrics, or even silent but loaded facial expressions.
At several crucial points that seemingly went on longer than one would hope, all my side of the theater saw was the back of an actor's head, depriving us of what should have been an emotional breakthrough in a particular character's arc. Well, at least the people sitting on the other side of us got to see the whole thing and not just hear it.
Nonetheless, when I was able to experience each actor's performances in plain sight, I was definitely engaged.
As Bruce Bechdel, Alison's perplexing father, Ron Hastings does an outstanding job of portraying all facets of the man's personality, that run the gamut of cantankerous and playful, to weirdly creepy and irrational. A complicated character inwardly tortured while clearly struggling to continue to keep up appearances as a perfect husband with the perfect family and home and marriage, Hastings allows some of Bruce's vulnerability to sneak out as he tries his best to make it seem like he has his shit together---when he clearly does not.
As the three actresses tasked to portray Alison at various ages, Chance Theater found three impressive players to take on the roles. "Small" Alison is wonderfully essayed by the adorable Holly Reichert, who spews believable childhood wonder and inquisitiveness and spunk with every appearance. Her solo work on "Ring of Keys" is a highlight and she certainly holds her own acting opposite her older cast members, particularly in her scenes with Hastings. I absolutely adored her and the actors who played her little brothers---Reese Hewitt and Christopher Patow---in the super joyful "Come to the Fun Home" the Bechdel children's creative "jingle" advertising the Bechdel Funeral Home run by their dad.
Madelyn Velazquez makes a notable turn as 19-year-old "Medium" Alison, who sounds awesome in her unabashed declaration of love in the song "Changing My Major." Her character's endearing uneasiness in her blossoming romance with Joan (Ketino Christopher) is enjoyable to watch, as is her tougher, sometimes heartbreaking scenes navigating conversations with both her Mother Helen (Jennifer Richardson) and her father Bruce.
Ashlee Espinosa leads the cast well as the adult, current day Alison, who mostly observes the action alongside us, but evokes a cavalcade of emotions that the audience shares with her out loud as she tries to figure out the mystery that is her dad. Visually, with her close-cropped hair and her hipster glasses, she certainly resembles her real life counterpart. But Espinosa embodies the persona well, particularly in her standout moment with Hastings in "Telephone Wire" filled with the aching longing of two people really needing to express their feelings...but somehow can't
Thematically and emotionally deep, FUN HOME remains utterly moving and achingly heartfelt, especially when presented in such an intimate environment where every spoken word, every sung lyric and every expression of emotion are laid bare in front of us. While I would have loved to have experienced the show where my views were more consistent, the production is, on the whole, exceptionally touching in its approach to the musical's layered storytelling.
FUN HOME is a musical with multiple, equally viable messages. It is a stern cautionary tale about the harsh consequences of non-communication. It is a testament to the importance of living an authentic life. And lastly, FUN HOME is a helpful reminder for people to live and embrace their truth, no matter how hard it may be for others to accept or to understand. Chance Theater's touching iteration certainly doesn't skimp on relaying these important take aways.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of FUN HOME - THE MUSICAL by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of FUN HOME continues on the Cripe Stage through March 1, 2020. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Choreography by Hazel Clarke. Musical direction by Lex Leigh. Directed by Marya Mazor.
Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.