Theater review: finding dad and self in ‘Fun Home’
Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron; music by Jeanine Tesori
Based on the best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel
Presented by 4th Wall Theatre, through June 17
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin Place
By GWEN OREL
If you’re a father, or know one, or ever had one, you’re going to find it hard not to tear up in parts of “Fun Home,” presented by 4th Wall Theatre, running at Studio Playhouse through June 17 (which is Father’s Day, appropriately enough).
The musical, inspired by Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel “Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic,” presents three versions of Alison: Small Alison (Montclair’s Annika Bergstrom-Shaw; Medium Alison (Samy Cordero), a 19-year-old student at Oberlin College, and Alison Bechdel herself, age 43 (Sarah Levine McLelland). Alison Bechdel is our narrator as she watches scenes from her childhood and young adulthood, to draw them.
Her father Bruce (Ted Cancila) committed suicide by standing in front of a truck, a few months after she, Medium Alison, came out as a lesbian. Shortly before that, she learned that her father was homosexual. In “Fun Home,” Alison writes a memoir and seeks to come to terms with her past, and understand it.
The title is the nickname for the funeral home her father runs, when he’s not teaching high school English or restoring the family home. In scenes from the past, we also meet her long-suffering, talented mother Helen Bechdel (Julie Stiel), who plays the piano and acts, and her two brothers Christian (Cameron Dickson) and John (Justin J. Roth). Her brothers and she create an imaginary commercial for the fun home, with a jingle and choreography.
In college, Medium Alison meets Joan (Corinne Walker), a sweet, faintly Goth lesbian, with whom she falls in love. And Shane Long plays all the other male roles, including Roy, a family babysitter, who was also her dad’s lover.
Jeanine Tesori’s music is gorgeous (it won Best Score at the 2015 Tony Awards), and the singers are wonderful, particularly young Bergstrom-Shaw.
Book and lyrics are by Lisa Kron. Kron’s lyrics, and book, work as well for what is left out as what is there (she too won a Tony Award). In one of the show’s most famous songs, “Ring of Keys,” Small Alison sees a butch lesbian in a diner and feels something she can’t articulate:
“It’s probably conceited to say,
But I think we’re alike in a certain way
4th Wall does the award-winning musical proud (in addition to the Tony award for Best Musical, the show has received the Lucille Lortel Award, the Outer Critics’ Circle Award, and many others). Director Kate Swan keeps the interlocking time lines clear, and the pace never lags.
As Alison’s dad, Cancila shows fussy arrogance, condescension, vulnerability: when he over-corrects Small Alison’s school project and yells at her for not doing it right, pretty much any child anywhere will be able to relate.
Best of all though is Cordero’s Medium Alison, all gawky arms and legs and thrills when she falls for Joan. Her “Changing My Major,” a hymn to Joan: “I am writing a thesis on Joan; it’s a cutting edge field and my mind is blown..” is utterly charming. And it’s Medium Alison that takes a final drive with her dad and sees the fear in his eyes (the musical hints that Dad may have been bipolar too).
It’s Big Alison who sings “Telephone Wire” on that drive, while Medium Alison is in the car. If only she could change the past... Medium and Big Alison try to connect with her father.
And in the end, she does.