BWW Review: Murfreesboro Little Theatre's Heartfelt FUN HOME is Gone Too Soon

BWW Review: Murfreesboro Little Theatre's Heartfelt FUN HOME is Gone Too SoonMost likely anyone within the sound of my voice - much less, the sight of all the words I've written about it - are aware that at one point in my life, I published Alison Bechdel's cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For in Query, Tennessee's Lesbian and Gay Newsweekly, the newspaper I co-founded with Stuart Bivin in 1988. Therefore, long before her graphic novel Fun Home became a Broadway musical that won critical and audience acclaim (not to mention a Tony Award) I have been not only a fan of Alison Bechdel the cartoonist and memoirist, but I've also been aware of her tremendous humanity and awe-inspiring candor.

It should come as no surprise then that Fun Home, therefore, the aforementioned Broadway hit featuring music by Jeanine Tesori, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron based upon Bechdel's graphic novel, is one of my favorite works in the canon of contemporary American Musical Theater. What some readers might find surprising, however, is that I fell absolutely and deeply in love with the show once over, thanks to a production from, of all places, Murfreesboro Little Theatre, where the show completes its much-too-brief run today with its 2 p.m. matinee.

While I am acutely aware that this review comes too late to exhort potential audience members to purchase tickets so they, too, may fall in love with the three Alisons who populate the intimate, chamber musical directed with sweet intensity and frank authenticity by Stephen Burnette, this review instead will serve as a reminder that oftentimes theater of a transformative nature may be found in the most unexpected of places: Even in a small theater than once served as a gathering place for local Boy Scouts in Murfreesboro long before it became the site of Mame, Evita and any number of other shows I've seen and reviewed there over the past 40 years.

Bechel's refreshingly direct and heartfelt graphic novel (which relates the tale of a young woman embracing her sexuality in a household fraught with tension and unease caused by her own father's secret life - in search of furtive gay trysts with grocery story bag-boys, the occasional babysitter or strangers met in darkened corridors and ominous alleyways) provides the inspiration for one of musical theater's most compelling and moving scripts in the first quarter of the 21st century. Yet the story is so universal, so genuinely heartbreaking yet ultimately inspiring and hopeful that it is likely to become one of the most revered shows of this century.

Kron's libretto for Fun Home provides audiences with entry into the Bechdel family - "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue" - by giving us a protagonist at three important junctures of her life: Small Alison, Medium Alison and Alison in her 40s, each of whom shares her unique perspective on coming of age among a fractured family who lived in a funeral home, the family business inherited by father Bruce from his own dad. The musical's unique structure fits intriguingly into the story being told and Burnette's biggest challenge (as it is for every director of Fun Home) is finding the three actresses to bring the character of Alison to life at three different ages and who somehow seamlessly fit together to complete a multi-dimensional character quite unlike any seen before on the musical theater stage.

In the MLT production, I'm happy to report, Burnette succeeds beautifully in finding his trio of Alisons: Eliza Griffey is small Alison, with Molly Womack as Medium Alison and Miranda Johnson as Alison. Together they create a portrait of the artist as a girl, a young woman and a successful cartoonist and writer who is beloved by her following. The three dovetail nicely into one another to bring Alison to life with dramatic intensity and good humor, managing to seem so much alike while being so very different and delivering performances that are at once poignant, self-effacing and ingratiating.

Griffey's performance of "Ring of Keys," the song of first self-awareness that is perhaps the best-known song among Tesori's lovely score, is evocatively performed and she manages to wring every emotion possible from the song. Likewise, Womack's paean to the first woman she falls for ("Changing My Major") is brimming with hope and self-acceptance, while Johnson's plaintive "Telephone Wire" is just as potent and heart-rending and likely to evoke a stirring reaction.

Cast as Alison's father Bruce, Jason Lewis faces the daunting task of winning over his audience while playing the not altogether likable family patriarch for the man he was: flawed, duplicitous and often angry. In Kron's script, she shares Bechdel's pronouncement that her dad didn't necessarily embrace fatherhood, but he had his moments (or words to that effect) and when Small Alison begs him to play "airplane" with her and he lies on the floor to suspend her in the air above him, there is a realization that for one brief moment he may have loved his daughter and that they shared something, however indefinable it might have been for her at that age, something which would keep them tethered together throughout life. Lewis' performance is unrefined in its range, and in bringing Bruce Bechdel to life he rages against the social conventions that kept the character stifled in a relationship unlike that which he yearned for, his true nature barely hidden by a mask of middle-class restraint.

Malinda Brafford is well-cast as Helen Bechdel, the community theatre star who gave up so much in life to become the wife of a closeted gay man, subjugating her desires in order to keep the peace, while Kiana Gonzalez gives a delightfully candid and unexpected performance as Joan, the young woman who helps Alison accept her own sexuality. Stephen Turner is quite good as the various young men who move in and out of Bruce Bechel's tragicomic life.

As Alison's brothers Christian and John, Andrew Neal and Charlie Bartlett are fresh-faced and eager young actors who deliver thoroughly believable performances and, with Griffey, they inject moments of levity and light into the show's sometimes languid pace with an upbeat and energetic rendition of "Come to the Fun Home."

Pete Hiett's set design provides a good backdrop for the various scenes throughout the Alisons' life, morphing from the stately colonial confines of personal quarters to a dorm room to a borrowed New York apartment, with Tracy Gannon's costumes and props lending credibility and a sense of time and place to the events taking place onstage, and Payton McCarthy's lighting design illuminates the space with measured, thoughtfully considered lightness and darkness.

Burnette doubles as musical director (the role for which he is best known among local theater circles) and his direction of the piece shows a great deal of promise of more to come from him in the future.

As I've considered my responses to MLT's production of Fun Home since seeing it a week ago (a new job, a move into new lodgings and the opening of a new production myself have slowed down my written review of the work ukntil now), I've been surprised by how moving my memories of the show have been and how vivid they remain as emotion fills my heart and tears fill my eyes to overflowing. That's due to the commitment and focus of the cast and crew. I wish I could watch them work their magic again.

Fun Home. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Based upon the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Directed by and with musical direction by Stephen Burnette. Presented by Murfreesboro Little Theatre. Through Sunday, June 23. For details, go to www.mltarts.com or call (615) 893-9825.



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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