BWW Review: FUN HOME at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY

BWW Review: FUN HOME at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY
Mary Tuomanen as Alison and
Ben Dibble as Bruce Bechdel in
Arden Theatre Company's production of Fun Home.
Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.

Arden Theatre Company closes its 30th anniversary season with Tony Award-winning musical, Fun Home, playing through June 17th on the F. Otto Haas Stage at 40 N. 2nd Street in Philadelphia.

Hailed as one of Broadway's most original musicals and winner of 5 Tony Awards, Fun Home is a groundbreaking story inspired by Alison Bechdel's best-selling graphic memoir. After the sudden death of her father, Alison sets out to unravel the many mysteries of her childhood growing up at the family funeral home in Central Pennsylvania. Moving between past and present, Alison relives her life through a series of memories and conversations-from her coming out to her moving journey to acceptance.

Fun Home features music by Jeanine Tesori with a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.

Founded in 1988, Arden Theatre Company is dedicated to bringing to life great storied by great storytellers-on the stage, in the classroom, and in the community. Terrence J. Nolen, Arden Producing Artistic Director and Director of Fun Home says, "The Arden is drawn to audacious musical theatre and committed to the idea that musicals can tell any story, including complex ones. Fun Home definitely pushes the boundaries of the art form." If it is compelling and provocative theatre that The Arden looks for when producing their seasons, then Fun Home definitely fits the bill. This musical is not only structurally different from traditionally commercial musical theatre, but it is also one of Broadway's first shows to feature a lesbian protagonist.

Arden Theatre Company, while being known for producing plays that are contemporary and pioneering, is also known for staging their productions in innovative and non-traditional ways. The Arden's production of Fun Home is being performed "in the round" with the audience seated on raked risers that surround the stage. In The Arden's rendition, there is no "fourth wall" separating the audience from the action of the play. The actors enter and exit through the aisles in the house and Mary Tuomanen (perfectly cast as Alison Bechdel) delivers her lines directly to the audience.

BWW Review: FUN HOME at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY
Kate Bove as Small Alison,
Ben Dibble as Bruce Bechdel and
Mary Tuomanen as Alison (background) in
Arden Theatre Company's Fun Home.
Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.

This production "in the round" is a great choice of staging for Fun Home both from a practical and dramaturgical standpoint. There is no bad seat in the house, and Nolen's dynamic directing results in stunning pictures from every angle and beautiful images no matter where you are seated. Dramaturgically, The Arden's show "in the round" suitably reflects the play's circular themes and even the circular structure of the musical such as the way the play ends the same way it begins, with Small Alison (played by Kate Bove and Lily Lexer) running onstage reenacting a rare moment in Alison's life when she had physical contact with her father while playing airplane with him as a child.

The Arden's Fun Home is compelling, engaging and exciting, and the musical's subject matter is deeply personal. Watching the most intimate moments of Alison Bechdel's life being disclosed onstage feels like eavesdropping, as if observing the lives of fish in a fishbowl. And like a fish trapped in a bowl, Alison describes how growing up she felt trapped in the delusion of the Bechdel "Fun Home".

Tuomanen as Alison seems almost separated from the play as she acts as an audience to her own life. She serves as a lens for the audience, bridging them into to the memories of her past. This illusion is built up in the play and broken near the end when her father Bruce (played by Ben Dibble) asks his daughter to go for a car ride. The ride ends up quite awkward as Alison wants to talk to her father about them both identifying as homosexual and she sings "Telephone Wire". She cries out to be seen by her father and sings about her trying to gain the courage to say something.

Though the Bechdel's call the family funeral home the "Fun Home", the events that happen inside are anything but fun. Bruce Bechdel works so hard to keep up the image of a picturesque family, but as Kim Carson sings in Helen Bechdel's ballad "Days and Days": "Everything is balanced and serene. Like chaos never happens if it's never seen." From the outside, no one knows of Bruce's emotional and sexual struggles.

Throughout the show, Alison tries desperately to be different from her father, but there are undeniable comparisons in their lives. In one scene, Small Alison, while working on a school project where she must draw all of the places her family has lived, asks her father for help. The way he takes over her project and tells her what she can and cannot do illustrates the relationship she has with him. Alison throughout the play craves freedom. She doesn't want to be like her father who has spent his whole life in going around in circles, geographically and emotionally. In the song "Maps" Alison sings about her father "I can draw a circle you lived your life inside."

BWW Review: FUN HOME at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY
Ben Dibble as Bruce Bechdel, Lily Lexer as Small Alison, Kim Carson as Helen Bechdel, and Mary Tuomanen as Alison in Arden Theatre Company's Fun Home.
Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.

The Arden's production design for Fun Home is innovative and proactive, featuring mostly white set pieces and props, with accents of red. It is visually striking and dramaturgically emphasizes the perfect, sterile image of the "Fun Home" from the outside while the red details symbolize blood, death, and the chaos behind this seemingly perfect family. The Arden's Fun Home set also features the framework of the roof of the Bechdel Funeral Home, a constant presence looming over the stage during the show-Alison's past physically and metaphorically hanging over her head.

BWW Review: FUN HOME at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY
Izzy Castaldi as Medium Alison and Jackie Soro as Joan
in Arden Theatre Company's Fun Home.
Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.

Alison describes how her deliverance from her family and her past began when she was in college. One very intimate moment in the musical is when Alison discovers her sexuality during one of the most endearing songs, "Changing My Major". The song is relatable, personal, and frankly, adorable as Medium Alison (played by Izzy Castaldi) professes her love for Joan (played by Jackie Soro), a woman she met on campus through the Gay Union. Alison believes that finding her sexuality is her liberation. But, she is disappointed by her parents' dismissing response to her "coming out". When Medium Alison returns home during a break from college, her mother Helen (played beautifully by Kim Carson) sings the song "Days and Days". She tells Alison about how she is trapped and wants Alison to go out and live her life. Carson gave me chills when she sang "Don't you come back here. I didn't raise you to give away your days like me."

The ballads in this musical are so profound. Director Terrence J. Nolen says, "Fun Home has a gorgeous score, a brilliant book and lyrics, and is a refreshingly honest and moving new musical about seeing your parents through grown up eyes. I am a fan of Tesori and am moved by her music. Having directed two of her other musicals (Violet and Caroline, or Change) I am thrilled to be bringing another of her works to the Arden Stage."

Tesori's music swept me away and Kron's lyrics are hard-hitting. Chills ran down my spine during Dibble's performance of "Edges of the World" comparing the house he in renovating to his life falling apart.

Though there is a lot of gravitas in the message and events of this play, it is a musical with so many fun and endearing moments. I became quickly lost in the world of the play, earnestly invested in the story and the lives of the characters.

One of the most engaging moments of the play is the song "Come to the Fun Home" when the three young Bechdel children-SmallAlison (shared by Kate Bove and Lily Lexer), Christian (played by Charles LaMonaca) and John, (played by Lyam David-Kilker)-create a witty and satirical musical commercial for the Bechdel Funeral Home. In this song, the kids dance around and even on top of a casket in the parlor proclaiming "You know our mourners? So satisfied. They like our formaldehyde."

BWW Review: FUN HOME at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY
Mary Tuomanen as Alison (background) and
Lyam David-Kilker as John Bechdel (foreground)
in Arden Theatre Company's Fun Home.
Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.

And in another fun moment, after overhearing her parents arguing in another room, Small Alison dreams of having a perfectly happy and loving family in "Raincoat of Love". After having just watched The Partridge Family on TV, the ensemble comes onstage in a fun break from the emotional depth of the rest of the musical.

Fun Home is an extremely emotional and impactful statement about the expression of art. Alison as an adult depicts her childhood and adult life through the pictures and captions she creates for her graphic novel. She focuses on objects that stimulate her memories. The audience sees her memories unfurl as she draws them, and the play acts as an inner working of Alison's mind in her creative process.

Arden Theatre Company's production of Fun Home is moving, memorable and masterful. It is an emotionally resonant and profound story with exciting staging and production. The Arden's Fun Home is more than just an enjoyable night at the theatre; it is an impactful and relatable story about love, loss and finding meaning that will change the way audiences perceive theatre.

BWW Review: FUN HOME at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY
Ensemble in Arden Theatre Company's Fun Home.
Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.

Though this show is quite an undertaking, The Arden's production proves Fun Home to be a musical audiences will be dying to see.

Fun Home runs through June 17th at Arden Theatre Company on the F. Ottto Haas Stage at 40 N. 2nd Street in Philadelphia.

Post-show discussions will be held following the performances on Thursday, May 31 at 7 pm, Sunday, June 3 at 2 pm, Wednesday, June 6 at 6:30 pm, Sunday, June 10 at 2 pm, and Wednesday, June 13 at 6:30 pm.

Tickets can be purchased through www.ardentheatre.org or by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, or by visiting the box office at 40 N. 2nd Street in Old City, Philadelphia.

Next up on the F. Otto Haas Stage is Arden Theatre Company's production of the Tony Award-winning musical Once which will kick off The Arden's 2018-2019 season.

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From This Author Amber Kusching

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