THE BASICS: FUN HOME, the multiple Tony-award winning 2016 musical by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori presented by MusicalFare, directed by Susan Drozd, runs through May 19, Thursday at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2 at Shea’s 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main Street (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org/710main Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes without intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: With all the plot elements and characters adapted from the 2006 no-holds barred autobiographical graphic memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel we meet her family, the Bechdels, in this coming-out and coming-of-age musical. The authoritarian father, Bruce, is a busy guy. He teaches high school English, meticulously renovates their Victorian home, and since grandpa died, runs the Bechdel Funeral Home. That’s referred to by the family as the “Fun Home,” which is an ironic comment on their often less than fun home life dealing with that cold perfectionist who was, some might say, trying to compensate for his big secret. We meet three incarnations of daughter Alison – “Small Alison” aged 10 who wants to wear jeans, not dresses; “Medium Alison” who goes to ultra-liberal Oberlin College and falls in love with fellow student “Joan;” and (adult) Alison, who narrates the musical, looking back with nostalgia, embarrassment, longing, love, understanding, and big unanswered questions.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The internet is alive with the happy buzz of theater goers who are impressed with this MusicalFare production and, while I have some reservations about the meandering script, especially towards the end, I will attest that every single theatrical element is equal to the best I’ve ever seen from MusicalFare.
Chris Cavanagh’s sets out at the smaller theater in Amherst are consistently wonderful, and it turns out that the larger Shea’s 710 stage holds no terrors for him. It’s a big stage, left to right, and so Cavanagh has expanded the living room set by creating several openings along the back wall through which we can see the seven-person orchestra, as illuminated by their music stands, which gives a classy “theatrical” look to the evening, and allows the orchestra to play with subtlety while still being heard clearly.
While the national tours over at the Shea’s mainstage are using better and better sampling keyboards, and I’ll admit I was fooled during the recent tour of BOOK OF MORMON, I still maintain that nothing beats “real” instruments, and the orchestra, all MusicalFare regulars, never sounded better. Music Director Theresa Quinn at the piano leads Peggy Scalzo on drums, Dave Siegfried on bass, Larry Albert on guitar, with Russ Carere woodwinds (primarily clarinet), and Gail Bauser, cello, along with Inga Yanoski and Amie Vredenburg, violins, all members of Musicians Local 92 AFM.
Regular readers know that, in general, I just don’t like kids on stage. Bah, Humbug. But, dammit, the three kids in this show are really fun and engaging including eighth-grader Joseph Bielecki (I’m assuming the older brother of 10-year-old Noah Bielecki who has recently been in other MusicalFare productions), second-grader Jasper Brown as the other brother, and fifth-grader Jane Hereth as “Small Alison” who remains consistent in her character and knocks it out of the park with her big number “Ring Of Keys.” A big thumbs up to director Susan Drozd for maintaining consistency among all her actors, every one of which, kids and adults, delivered.
Chris J. Handley as Bruce was believable and subtle and realistic in a role that I suppose could be lopsided or cartoonish but wasn’t. Michele Marie Roberts has belted out “take me seriously” songs as Eva Peron in EVITA; she has belted out comic riffs as the “Lady of the Lake” in SPAMALOT; but here she sang through tightly held frustrated anger, as “Helen,” the mom, diminished day by day by the deal she has made singing in a heart-breaking and affecting manor through clenched teeth: “Everything is balanced and serene. Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” Wow. Audience members are asked to note a particularly moving moment, and for me Roberts’ performance of “Days” was that. Sometimes you think you know an actor, and then she just jumps into another dimension.
Renee Landrigan plays plucky with aplomb, and here jumps into the role of “Medium Alison,” the college girl who comes out, finally, to the relief of her first college love, “Jane” played by LauRen Nicole Alaimo, who is strong, but never overpowers the script. I was looking forward to “Changing My Major” and Landrigan didn’t disappoint. Boston transplant Robyn Lee Horn plays and sings grown up “Alison” with a wide variety of moods as she narrates the evening. Steve Copps fulfills a number of utility roles with the relaxed good humor that make him an audience favorite.
History Lesson: In the late 1960s, riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, race riots in Watts, Detroit, and here in Buffalo, and the marches on Washington, and the Kent State shootings all ably illustrate the great cultural shift that took place in the second half of the 20thcentury. Add to that list the Stonewall Riots, which this summer marks its 50th anniversary.
“In the early hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village in New York City. The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets and in nearby Christopher Park. The Stonewall Riots served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.”
All of these riots, actions, or protests were spearheaded by members of what has been called “the Silent Generation,” the group born in the mid to late 1930s that produced SDS, the Freedom Riders, and organized college campuses. While Bruce Bechdel, the father in FUN HOME, may have been born into that generation, he seems to live consistent with what has been called the “G.I.” or “Greatest” generation, a slightly older group, where conformity, not the search for authenticity, was key. And so Bruce is very concerned for his daughter, worried that her non-conformist life style will bring her unhappiness. Alison, however, has reaped the rewards of the cultural shift that was fought for while she was just a child. By the time she gets to Oberlin, that already liberal campus was more than welcoming for her. I think it’s important, in these days of popular “out” personalities such as Ellen Degeneres and Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, that we remember that it wasn’t so long ago that Bruce’s world, not Alison’s, was the norm. It’s entirely fitting that MusicalFare chose this piece at this time.
It’s entirely fitting that MusicalFare chose this piece at this time.
While all the production elements were first rate, and while I thought that the historical perspective was very nuanced, I found the script somewhat meandering later in the show. FUN HOME has been described as “labyrinthine” meaning that it circles back on itself. In the graphic memoir, the father, Bruce, is seen as both “Daedalus,” the brilliant mythical architect of “The Labyrinth” which was designed to contain “The Minotaur” and he’s also symbolic of that creature himself. Remember that Bruce carefully restores his home and leaves no detail to chance, just as Daedalus did with his designs, but he is also the Minotaur, the monster inside which creeps out during his not infrequent moments of rage. I thought that this circling back made the latter part of the play drag just a little.
Also, there are loose threads, particularly with people we’re invested in. What happened to Alison’s two brothers? They’re such a big part of the beginning of the story and then, poof, they’re gone. And what happened to Joan? She was important too, but she’s gone.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!