“Fun Home” strikes a chord by creatively showing, often through song, how defining moments in our childhood and formative years shape who we become as adults.
Baltimore Center Stage’s production, up through Feb. 24, beautifully interprets this beloved Tony Award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel with confident direction, strong performances and effective scenic design, including balanced, thoughtful use of projections, which Center Stage is so fond of using in its productions to varying degrees of success. They work here.
As Baltimore Center Stage’s former public relations manager and a regular audience member for the last five years, I’ve seen a lot of shows at the theater, always with an insider’s critical eye. I often dissect and discuss productions with staff and members of the shows’ creative teams. We know where the cracks are. While I’ve been impressed with and proud of the artistry, performances and/or other elements of every single production at the state theater of Maryland, only a handful of times have I swooned over an entire production.
Two shows this season have made that happen. One was “Fun Home.” The other was the joyful, inventive love letter to the Chinese community, “King of the Yees,” another contemporary autobiographical story that, like “Fun Home,” was written by a female playwright (Lauren Yees) with a female central character (Lauren Yees) and female director (Desdemona Chiang). Coincidence? Maybe, but I’m going to give the win to the ladies on this.
With humor and compassion, “Fun Home” shows the evolution of 42-year-old lesbian cartoonist Alison through the defining memories of the discovery of her own sexuality and her relationship with her repressed homosexual father, who killed himself shortly after Alison came out to her parents at 17. The titular “Fun Home” is the nickname of the family-run funeral home. It might not sound like a show that is relatable, humorous and life-affirming, but it is.
The show poetically chronicles Alison’s emotional journey by weaving together memories of her childhood, freshman year of college and present-day self as a successful cartoonist. The three Alisons in “Fun Home” are grounded, self-aware and easily find the humor in sometimes traumatic situations involving her angry, closeted father and struggling mother. All three actors filling the Alison roles are excellent. While there are no big earworm numbers in the music (book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori), every song moves the story along, and all of the actors deliver them well.
Played with stability and warmth throughout by Andrea Prestinario, the constant thread is adult Alison. “Small Alison” (Molly Lyons, impressive beyond her years) delivers an exuberant recognition of “her people” in “Ring of Keys,” a song devoted to “an old-school butch” delivery woman to whom young Alison asks, “Do you feel my heart saying ‘hi’?” Charmingly awkward and immediately endearing is Laura Darrell as college-age “Medium Alison,” shining through a range of emotions. Her comic timing and vocal skills are on point in “Changing My Major,” in response to losing her virginity to Joan (an appealing and natural Shannon Tyo).
Alison’s father, Bruce, is a difficult character to play–angry and at times despicable in his parenting choices, like leaving his children alone in a NYC hotel room while he goes cruising–but actor Jeffry Denman exudes a vulnerability and pain that makes you feel for this character who never gains the self-acceptance his daughter so confidently embraces.
As Bruce’s trapped, regretful wife Helen, Michelle Dawson gives a restrained performance that explodes in one of the musical’s most emotional numbers, “Days and Days.” At a performance my friend attended, audience members gave Dawson a standing ovation immediately after the song, and rightly so.
Director Hana Sharif, also associate artistic director of Center Stage, deftly guides her talented cast, and ensures blockings, scene changes and all of the production elements complement each other. I’ve seen all of the shows Sharif has directed at Center Stage, and I appreciate the cohesion of this swan song production in Baltimore before she takes the helm as artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis later this year.
Other production elements stand out, too. Scott Bradley’s effective scenic design incorporates picture frames with projections of letters, graphics and Alison’s Pennsylvania childhood home. Xavier Pierce’s lighting design is gorgeous, lifting each scene and creating moods that further bring audiences into the story. Particularly poignant is his shifting from warm hues to cold in Bruce’s heart-breaking “Edges of the World” number, in which he sees how his life could have been. It’s beautiful.
The entire production is beautiful. Thoughtful, poignant and entertaining, “Fun Home” is much more than a coming-out story. It speaks to anyone making peace with their past.
“Fun Home” runs through Feb. 24 at Baltimore Center Stage. For tickets and more information, visit centerstage.org/plays-and-events/mainstage/fun-home