Virginia Stage Company provides meaningful theater with "Fun Home"
By Mal Vincent
January 31, 2019
"Fun Home" is a musical set mainly in a funeral home about a woman and her father who struggle with their sexual orientation and keeping it under wraps. The tragedy stems not from each fully realizing the other's position, but rather from the way their age difference demands different kinds of suppression – and soul-searching that amounts to torture for any generation.
Each is forced to seek some semblance of happiness – isolated and at times humiliated – in a society that throws around the word “liberation” but doesn't always live by it. Such is the power of “Fun Home.”
The Tony Award-winning score by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron is sprinkled with hints of pop and folk-rock, but this is surely not “Singing in the Rain.” Call it a portrait of father and daughter. Call it a harrowing, heartbreaking journey of self-discovery. Most of all, call it a complex venture in meaningful theater. “Fun Home” is a brave choice for the Virginia Stage Company. It puts daring back on the boards at the Wells Theatre.
Alison Bechdel, author of the cartoon strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” (1983-2008), wrote the graphic novel “Fun Home” in 2006 – calling it “a family tragicomic.” Kron adapted the graphic novel into the musical, writing the book and the lyrics for Tesori's music. “Fun Home” is Tesori's most personal and moving work – styled in a manner that often makes you forget what is spoken and what is sung. Among the play's five Tony Awards in 2015 was best musical, over “An American in Paris.” It was the first show to win for best score whose creators were both women.
The central character, Alison, is played here by three well-matched actresses who portray her at the approximate ages of 9, 19 and 43.
It is a memory play, but memory more as a search than as fact. The inherent mystery in that search heightens tension for the audience and reflects the honesty of the adult Alison – the one searching. Kate Fahrner gives the adult Alison a probing intelligence, although she surely does not suggest the age, 43, that the script identifies.) She has played Glinda in “Wicked” on Broadway, and we look forward to hearing what she will do with all the female parts in VSC's upcoming (Feb. 15, 16 and 17) concert version of “The Secret Garden” at Norfolk Botanical Garden.
In this play, she makes the moment when Alison realizes a true connection between herself and her father a truly special one.
Sarah Stewart Chapin lends a comic exuberance to the teen Alison as she realizes she has fallen for Joan (Rachel Felstein). More exuberance would not have hurt for such an all-important moment.
As the small Alison, Caleigh Howell, a local seventh-grader, is impressively mature in expressing sadness with her father’s rejections. But it seems a little much for a 9-year-oldish character to sing “Ring of Keys” about her attraction to a female delivery woman, even considering that the song's focus is identity rather than sensuality.
The most complex role is that of the father. He has two sons, a daughter and a wife, but seems to live for remodeling his home and picking up boys – sometimes bringing them home. Craig Waletzko wrings all he can from the book, though the way the part is written leaves much of the father's psychological struggle offstage. That distance, however, is part of the tragedy.
As the wife, April Poland gets the show’s best ballad – showing us, via acting rather than vocal expertise, the sacrifices she has made.
There are upbeat numbers, such as the kids dancing on a coffin to suggest the commercial nature of the family funeral home and a spoof of 1970s TV that is a mixture of the Jackson Five and the Partridge Family. They have no point except to offer relief. Of the kids, Jack Wielar, a veteran of Virginia Musical Theatre’s “Seussical,” has the charisma and the moves. Hopefully, he won't ruin it with too many acting classes.
Joanna Li directs the seven-piece, onstage musicians through the occasionally tricky score with as much mood as melody. AnnMarie Duggan’s lighting is dim and foreboding. The mood is almost frightening. Reid Thompson’s set is minimal, and justifiably so. Jessica Holt, who last directed here for the kinky “Venus in Fur,” holds it all together.
“Fun Home” gets you to care about these ordinary people on the hunt for a genuine life and acceptance on a personal and social level. This musical production will inspire deep soul-searching. In some ways, it is the delayed start of the new theater season.