Fun Home is a deeply personal, moving musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir and adapted for the stage by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. Thus, it’s only fitting that Theatre Raleigh, in its new, intimate space, would be the first to stage a local production. And, while this musical is profoundly affecting regardless of where it’s performed, it definitely gains something by taking place on a smaller stage, one where viewers can see and even feel every emotion clearly, . . . and this is certainly one show that doesn’t run short on emotion.
Directed to perfection by Tim Seib, the story centers around three versions of the same person: a young girl and then woman named Alison. Adult Alison (Angela Travino) reflects on her 1970s childhood and her early college years, serving as both an onlooker and a narrator to the onstage action. Her memories center on her burgeoning sexuality and her relationship with her troubled father, Bruce (Christopher Gurr). While Bruce’s only outlet for his homosexuality is illicit, sometimes predatory trysts, Alison is able to achieve freedom and self-acceptance, setting the pair up as similar people separated by very different times and too many unspoken words.
And, while this subject matter may be serious, even dire at times, this isn’t to say that Fun Home doesn’t live up to its somewhat misleading but densely deep title. In fact, this production, thanks in large part to the surprisingly upbeat choreography, is particularly good at tackling the out-of-place humor that makes this story stand out as more than just a somber tale. Numbers like the tongue-in-cheek “Come to the Fun Home” add a sense of unexpected joy, offering up light in the darkness and achieving the story’s goal of portraying life as it is: imperfect and difficult, but bettered by a few shining moments.
It is Small Alison, portrayed by a precocious Rebecca Clarke, who handles most of the main character’s lighter moments, though she does have a few hard-hitting emotional interactions with Gurr’s character. The older Alisons, though, are tasked with some truly tough stuff, and both rise to the occasion. Averi Zimmerman’s Middle Alison is wonderfully awkward, endearing, and relatable. Zimmerman’s natural ease and self-assurance on the stage enable her to believably render a character who possesses neither of these things. Likewise, Travino embodies the nuanced narrator expertly. Even in scenes where her character only watches, where the attention is elsewhere, she is always on, alert, and exuding emotion.
Similarly, Gurr’s portrayal of Bruce is a thorough one. Storming behind the eyes and affecting the perfect pitch, movements, and even posture, he makes Bruce’s pain palpable. His performance is backed and strengthened by that of Sarah Smith, as his wife, Helen. She delivers a particularly compelling rendition of “Days and Days,” an effective, beautiful musical number in a production that’s full of them. Even the smaller roles, such as Faith Jones’ highly likeable Joan and Melvin Gray, Jr.’s shifting portrayals of Bruce’s young partners, contain an impressive amount of complexity.
These riveting performances all play out on Becca Johnson’s beautifully-designed stage. Featuring a color block home, made to look like the cartoons Alison will grow to draw or like a dollhouse from a child’s memory, it gives viewers just as much to contemplate as the show itself. Add in perfectly period costumes and even time-appropriate sleeping bags from costumer Dorothy Austin-Harrell and properties master Denise Schumaker, as well as sensitive lighting touches from Jeremy Diamond, and the result is a completely immersive world come to life on the stage.
Filled with chilling scenes that linger long after the curtain closes, this production is one that both enriches and entertains its viewers. It is a story about growing up as a gay person, but it’s also just about growing up. It’s about realizing that even, perhaps especially, superheroes have their demons, but that perfection isn’t necessary for love to exist. A story of self-discovery made all the more powerful by Theatre Raleigh’s rich production values, Fun Home is a transformative must-see. Even viewers who have seen the show before have not seen it like this, guaranteed.
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