Lyric Theatre's Exceptional FUN HOME is a Must-See
There are many musicals that are known as classics, which are beloved or have stood the test of time for years and years. They are the old familiars, the standards, which we go back to time and time again. On the other hand, there are always new and exciting musicals coming onto the scene every year, to widely varying degrees of success. One exciting young musical that burst onto the scene in the past few years is Fun Home, now receiving it's Oklahoma premiere with a mesmerizing and riveting production at Lyric Theatre's Plaza stage.
Appearing on Broadway in 2015, Fun Home was met with critical acclaim and went on to garner a number of Tony Award nominations, winning quite a few, including Best Musical. With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, the show is based upon the graphic novel of the same title, written by Alison Bechdel. Her memoir, and the stage adaptation, tells the story of her life at three different stages, a young child, a college freshmen and a middle-aged woman. At the story's center is her relationship with her father, who is a closeted gay man, and her own struggles with her sexuality and coming-out journey, during her time at college.
It has been noted that this is the first musical that has a lesbian protagonist, which by itself is pretty cool. Bechdel's story is much more than that, though, as it digs deep into the experience of both its protagonist and her father, telling two tales that are parallel but different. Young Alison's journey of self-discovery begins when she is a child and continues into college, when she meets a strong-willed lesbian named Joan who supports her as she comes out, a journey that is filled with anxiety but also joy and hopefulness. On the other hand, Bruce, Alison's father, experiences a journey of sexuality that is filled with anger, resentment, bitterness, secrets and sadness, and Bechdel does not shy away from examining how the latter influenced the former, how Bruce's experiences with his sexuality impact Alison's experiences with her own.
This multi-layered story doesn't just stop there, as we see how the experiences of these two people are also intertwined with everyone around them. Alison's mother, Helen, is especially caught up in the constant turmoil caused by her husband's behavior, turmoil which is not lessened by her daughter's revelation. We get glimpses into Bruce's interactions with the objects of his affection and his other children and Alison's experiences with her siblings as well as with her first true love interest. All of this is handled by Bechdel, and then by Kron and Tesori with an impressive amount of skill and talent. The characters are intensely real and deeply felt, with many moments that are chilling, heartbreaking or both. Everything that happens feels real, truthful, and earned by the characters, a believable part of their very real lives.
With her musical contribution, Tesori supports and strengthens all of those things, never diminishing or distracting from anything that happens on stage. The music is as beautiful and the lyrics as powerful as the spoken words, the emotional reactions caused in the audience just as real. Some songs, like "Come to the Fun Home" are adorable and extremely fun and funny. Another, "Changing My Major" is a heartfelt, hilarious and beautifully sung ode to young love. Still others, like "Days and Days" and "Telephone Wire" are emotional and devastating.
Director Michael Baron ratchets up the emotion to levels that are almost unbearable at times. The tension, awkwardness and sadness are incredibly real, and the moments of humor sprinkled throughout are just as much so. Baron has found the right tone and tenor for every moment and brought amazingly real and truthful performances out of his actors. He has also assembled a cast that works perfectly as an ensemble, although casting a deaf actress in a role that is not written to be deaf does feel a bit like a gimmick or stunt casting, lessened by the fact that the actress is so good in the role. This may be nitpicking but it's frustrating to keep seeing the continuation of this trend of directors staging actors so that they are facing upstage during pivotal moments. In two climactic scenes, Alison is staged so she's looking at her father at an angle that prevents us from seeing her face, a disservice to the actress and the audience.
While working together expertly as an ensemble, every member of the cast shines individually as well. Lyn Cramer leads the way as adult Alison, who narrates the story as she sketches the drawings that will make up her graphic novel. It's fascinating to watch Cramer as she observes and interacts with her memories and her past. Cramer also has both excellent comic timing a lovely, emotional singing voice, especially during "Telephone Wire."
We also observe Alison as a child, "Small Alison," and college freshmen, "Medium Alison," played by two equally fantastic actresses. Reese Freund is a Broadway star waiting to happen as the childhood Alison. She's got an astounding stage charisma for an actress so young and brings both plenty of sass and attitude as well as a stellar singing voice and vocal talent, especially in "Ring of Keys." As college-age Alison, Taylor Yancey is a pitch-perfect picture of teenage angst, awkwardness, confusion, emotional turmoil and determination. Her rendition of "Changing My Major" is one of the show's major high points, as are all of her scenes with her parents, with whom she has an electric, very real chemistry.
Yancey also has a fantastic, palpable chemistry with Sandra Mae Frank, the aforementioned deaf actress, who plays Joan, a confident lesbian student at Alison's school, with whom Alison falls in love. Frank is an equally confident actress who brings a liveliness, charisma and stage presence to her every moment. Her strong and compassionate Joan is the kind of person we all wish we had met during our most difficult, awkward and challenging moments of young adulthood.
While every performance here is excellent, the two most stunning are turned in by the performers playing Alison's parents. As Bruce, Mateja Govich gives another beyond-stellar performance. His Bruce is one of the most multi-faceted and multi-layered characters you will ever see created on stage. At different times he is sympathetic, terrifying, pathetic, creepy, lovable, and a host of other qualities, leading the audience to love him, hate him, or feel sorry for him, maybe all at the same time. Govich also has a deep and powerful singing voice which he again puts to excellent use here. Just as stellar is the performance of Mandy Jiran as Helen. From start to finish, we see Helen struggle both inwardly and outwardly, something seething or bubbling just underneath the surface at all times. When she finally lets it all out, in song of course, during "Days and Days," the power of her vocals and emotion just about brings the house down. It's a performance that is impressive in both its quiet moments and its moments that are far from quiet.
Rounding out the cast are three other excellent performers. Taylor Blackman is very good as Roy, an object of Bruce's affection, and a few other characters that pop up now and then. As Small Alison's brothers, Coulter Hershey and Connor Willis are both wonderful, especially when they get to strut their musical stuff in the adorable "Come to the Fun Home."
All of Lyric's production elements are up to their usually high standards of excellence, especially the scenic design by Dawn Drake which makes everything appear as if it just popped out of the pages of a graphic novel. While the technical elements are all very well executed, this is a show that does not need or rest upon spectacle. It is a show that lives and breathes through the heart and soul of its characters, music and song. And if your heart doesn't break at least once, maybe more, during the final third of this show, you may need to check to make sure you still have one.
Fun Home runs through April 29 at the Lyric Theatre's Plaza stage on NW 16th Street. Show times are Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm. There will be ASL interpreted performances on the 15th at 2:00pm, 21st at 2:00pm, 26th at 7:30pm, 27th at 8:00pm and 28th at 8:00pm. Tickets are available by visiting the company's website at lyrictheatreok.com or by calling the box office at (405) 524-9312.
Fun Home is performed without intermission and contains adults themes and situations.
Pictured (L to R): Sandra Mae Frank and Taylor Yancey