A stage representative of a beautifully cared for home lights up, as does the face of the youngest version of Alison Bechdel, played by Violet Craighead-Way, as she begins to sing. I had only heard about Fun Home. I had never seen it (or listened to the music). I walked into Live Arts’ production on opening night with no expectations and a clean slate—I left with a tear-stained face, and a slightly melancholy, yet full, heart.
Musicals from my childhood never tackled such adult material; they were not as complex musically. Layered melodies with beautiful harmonies and a complimentary yet integral score, makes Fun Home written by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, thought-provoking to listen to. Fun Home, a memoir comic from the very real Alison Bechdel, spent two weeks on the (New York Times) Best Seller list and received numerous awards before the stage version received Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score, Best Lead Actor and Best Direction in 2015.
Live Arts’ production, directed by Miller Murray Susen, surprised me with intricacy, laughter and more star power inside its cast than should be possible. Alison is seen through three versions of herself based on age. Marie Lee, who played Medium Alison, was a joy to watch. Her seamless melding of an intellectually advanced college student and excruciatingly awkward young woman coming into her own was not only funny and delightful, but nostalgic for those of us in the audience more than a few years past that time of life.
Melissa Charles, who plays Helen Bechdel, starts out as an everyday housewife and transforms into the most heartbreaking character of all. Her final words to her college-age daughter at home for a visit; “Don’t come back here. I didn’t raise you to waste away your days, like me,” left the audience so stunned they almost forgot to applaud as she walked off stage. Finally, the grown up Alison, Julie Stavinski, was a master at being engaged in the action and an observer at the same time. When she steps in to take the last car ride with her father, you can feel the torment knowing this is the last time she will see her father alive.
Throughout the show, there are moments of unexpected laughter paired with moments of fear or sadness. This is not the musical of old, with fake overstated and overacted prima donnas. This is a slice of life that happens to have its own soundtrack. Although the costumes were era-appropriate, some of them were ill fitting and baggy, which was a bit of a distraction for me.
Dan Feigert’s set was gorgeous and used the (more tall than wide) space in the Gibson theater delightfully, but it was hard to hear the younger kids during songs. I could tell they were projecting, but some lyrics for the kid numbers were lost. But none of this had any effect on my enjoyment of the three Bechdel children singing a delightful commercial for their family funeral home. Heather Powell’s choreography was fun and energetic, however it may have been a tad too modern for rural Pennsylvania in the ’70s.
I need to give major props to the lighting director, Steve Johnson. I have done shows in the Gibson, and it may be the most impossible space to light effectively, due to the fact that you can’t achieve a 45-degree angle in the space. I couldn’t find a dark spot, and I looked. And the headlight effect at the end of the play was startling but not overpowering.
Last, but definitely not least, Kristin Baltes was absolute perfection as music director, pianist and flutist. With such complex music, it was performed elegantly and sounded beautiful from the first note to the last.
Fun Home at Live Arts is a solid success. A heartbreakingly beautiful story, wrapped in an awkward and irreverent package, told by talented artists. —Leslie Scott-Jones