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BWW Review: FUN HOME at 42nd Street Moon Beautifully Explores a Daughter's Longing to Come to Terms with Her Family History

The heart-rending and humorous production of the Tony-winning musical runs live through May 8th only

BWW Review: FUN HOME at 42nd Street Moon Beautifully Explores a Daughter's Longing to Come to Terms with Her Family History
(L to R) Rinabeth Apostol as Alison and Jaron Vesely as Bruce share one last drive
in 42nd Street Moon's production of Fun Home

42nd Street Moon's terrific new production of Jeanine Tesori & Lisa Kron's Tony-winning musical Fun Home is easily one of the best things Moon has done in ages. This was not at all a foregone conclusion, given that the show is of much more recent vintage than the twentieth-century classics that are normally Moon's bread and butter. Fun Home also delves into some very weighty topics that are not often explored in the musical theater canon. Based on the best-selling graphic novel by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, Fun Home tells the true story of her own family, including a deeply troubled father who ran a funeral home and was also a closeted gay man. Shortly after Alison came out to him, her father committed suicide by throwing himself in the path of an oncoming semi-truck. Not exactly standard subject matter for a musical, but then Fun Home is hardly your standard musical.

The story is told in time-fractured fashion, depicting Alison at three distinct periods of her life - as a pre-adolescent, a college freshman, and an adult looking back at earlier events and trying to make sense of them. It's the latter part that ultimately makes the show so relatable and heart-rending. Even those of us whose families had more pedestrian levels of dysfunction can understand Alison's need to replay certain points of disconnect with her parents, examine the ways in which she fell short or perhaps missed some crucial signs, and try to somehow make amends.

BWW Review: FUN HOME at 42nd Street Moon Beautifully Explores a Daughter's Longing to Come to Terms with Her Family History
(L to R) Teresa Attridge as Medium Alison falls hard for Sophia Alawi as Joan
in 42nd Street Moon's production of Fun Home

12-year-old "Small Alison" alternately bonds with her mercurial, persnickety, antiques-obsessed father over their shared love of classic literature and argues bitterly with him as he insists she dress in girly attire. When "Medium Alison" goes off to Oberlin College, she soon reaches an epiphany about her own sexuality and wonders if there is a hidden significance in the fact that her father has sent her a volume of Colette's writings. These episodes are interspersed with scenes of Small Alison and her two siblings blithely playing among the caskets, her father taking inordinate pride in the immaculate showplace of their home, and her actress/homemaker mother living a life of quiet desperation even though she is well aware of her husband's transgressions. Some scenes are unnerving, some are delightfully comedic (like the devilish glee the three kids take in performing a "commercial" for the Bechdel Funeral Home, set to a 1970's Philly Soul beat), and others are sad and wistful.

BWW Review: FUN HOME at 42nd Street Moon Beautifully Explores a Daughter's Longing to Come to Terms with Her Family History
(L to R) Royal Mickens as Christian, Keenan Moran as John and McKenna Rose as Small Alison
perform their own commercial for the Bechdel Funeral Home in Fun Home at 42nd Street Moon

The score by Tesori (music) and Kron (lyrics) is sometimes performed in fragments, but also includes some knockout standalone numbers, such as "Changing My Major" which depicts Medium Alison reveling in her first love/lust experience at college and suddenly unable to even imagine a life spent outside the bedroom. Late in the one-act show is a remarkable series of three songs in a row that are easily among the best written for the musical theater in the past quarter century. "Ring of Keys" relates Small Alison's fascination with a butch woman she spies at a luncheonette, showing her that she might have a place in this world after all. When she sings at the end of the song "I know you. I know you," it feels like providence. "Days and Days" lets us in on Helen's own special brand of hell, living with a man who provides for her family and supports her theatrical pursuits, but will never be able to give her the love she needs. "Telephone Wire" has Alison recollecting her last-ditch attempt to connect with her father during a car ride through semi-rural Pennsylvania and somehow compel him to finally share his truth, but she ultimately just doesn't have the emotional wherewithal to confront him.

With its complicated emotional territory and unorthodox structure, Fun Home is a tricky show to pull off, and 42nd Street Moon is giving it a beautifully-realized production. Mark Mendelson's set is handsomely conceived, decked out with all manner of bric-a-brac as well as exposed wall studs that serve as a perfect visual metaphor for the search the adult Alison is on to peel back the layers of memory to uncover the underlying truths. The show has also been perfectly cast and sensitively directed by Tracy Ward. Virtually everyone gets many moments to shine.

For starters, all three of the child actors are wonderful, giving natural, unaffected performances without even a hint of precociousness. Keenan Moran as John is a high-spirited mischief-maker, perhaps still too young to understand his family's mania. Royal Mickens as Christian is more introspective and wary, as if he senses trouble is always just around the corner. McKenna Rose as Small Alison rises to the moment of "Ring of Keys" and serves as a worthy adversary to her sometimes tyrannical father. Teresa Attridge as Medium Alison shows impeccable timing in her hilariously conflicted initial encounters with Sophia Alawi as her girlfriend Joan. Alawi, too, has an offbeat comic presence that makes their scenes together sparkle.

BWW Review: FUN HOME at 42nd Street Moon Beautifully Explores a Daughter's Longing to Come to Terms with Her Family History
McKenna Rose (foreground) as Small Alison performs "Ring of Keys" as
Jaron Vesely as Bruce and Rinabeth Apostol as Alison observe in the background

Jennifer Boesing as the matriarch, Helen, appears at first a little too cold and distant until you realize these are her defense mechanisms for surviving an emotionally-abusive marriage. We eventually see a few tiny cracks in that carefully-constructed armor that show how much she loves Alison and even secretly admires her strength. Jaron Vesely as the father, Bruce, registers strongly in an especially difficult role. He manages to be overbearing (and much worse) without ever totally putting us off, and allows us to see the humanity and conflict behind this deeply flawed man. And, finally, Rinabeth Apostol is simply terrific in the central role of the adult Alison. This is another difficult part, as Alison is onstage almost continuously and is often just a mute observer as she revisits problematic scenes from her life. Apostol makes her consistently compelling without ever seeming to do too much and delivers a heartbreaking, gorgeously sung "Telephone Wire." Her desperate longing to somehow find a way to connect with her father is palpable.

The show culminates in a beautifully-staged meeting of all three Alisons for the first time. Without a hint of sappiness, it suggests that although Alison will never be able to truly come to terms with her father (his suicide has precluded that possibility), she can at least come to terms with herself. And that, at least, is something.

(all photos by Ben Krantz Studio)

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42nd Street Moon's Fun Home performs live at the Gateway Theatre (215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94111) only through Sunday, May 8, 2022. Running time is approximately 105 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and additional information, visit 42ndstmoon.org/fun-home.



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