I've been eagerly anticipating "Fun Home" by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for months. The groundbreaking toast of Broadway in 2015, "Fun Home" is the Tony-winning musical memoir based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's acclaimed graphic novel of the same name. Because it's been so buzzed about, I briefly worried that my expectations would be perhaps too high. Happily, the show is as strong, moving and well-done as I'd hoped.
Like the autobiographical graphic novel, the stage version of "Fun Home" is a non-linear exploration of Bechdel's childhood and young adulthood, including her coming out, and especially her complicated relationship with her late father, Bruce.
Because the story is an autobiography, told in Bechdel's narrative voice, the live show puts adult Alison (Moira Stone) on stage the whole time as if she were working on the creation of the book, framing the scenes and captioning them aloud as she goes. The action revolves back and forth between modern day Alison, Small Alison (Lila Gold, with Ruth Keith in select performances) as a child in the 1970s and Medium Alison (Erin Kommor) in college in the 1980s. The "fun home" of the title is the family-run funeral home, where Bruce (James Lloyd Reynolds) works as a part-time mortician. He's also a high-school English teacher but his greatest passion is his Gothic Revival house, which he's meticulously restored and keeps like a museum.
Bruce is not a happy man. Gay but unsuccessfully closeted, he takes his unhappiness out on his long-suffering wife, Helen (Crissy Guerrero), and children, who include sons Christian (Jack Barrett, with Dylan Kento Curtis in select performances) and John (Billy Hutton, with Oliver Copaken Yellin) in addition to Alison.
Alison clearly adores her father and wants to please him; they find common ground over literature and at times, she says, he "appeared to enjoy having children." However, he's controlling, prone to angry outbursts and, thanks to his repressed true self, unable to really express his emotions. Medium Alison, who embraces her lesbian identity in college, falling in love with bold, comfortable-in-her-skin Joan (Ayelet Firstenberg), is absolutely shocked to learn her father, too, is gay. She attempts to connect with him on a new level but is unable to break through. Tragically, he dies at age 44 by probable suicide, leaving her with many regrets, questions and poignant memories.
Heavy topics, certainly, but Bechdel's work and the musical based on it (lyrics and book by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori) is full of humor and sweetness, too. The Jackson 5 pastiche "Come to the Fun Home," the Bechdel siblings' homemade commercial for the funeral home, is hilarious and groovy, and the three child actors show off their considerable energy and talents. Kommor as Medium Alison gets her own sweet, funny solo with "Changing My Major," sung after she's just embarked on her relationship with Joan.
"Ring of Keys," the show's standout number, is an exhilarating example of successful songwriting. Capturing the moment at which Small Alison feels a kinship with and attraction to an "old-school butch" delivery woman, the song is simple but breathtaking. The lyrics describe the confusing twinges Small Alison is feeling in language that feels full of authentic childlike wonder. Tesori's melody absolutely soars. Full of ache, longing and joy, it captures Small Alison's awakening, not necessarily in a sexual or romantic way but in her steps toward discovering her identity. It's got the catchiness of a pop-radio single and has no doubt become both an LGBTQ anthem and a staple of many a young girl's audition repertoire. It's a lot to rest on the shoulders of a child performer but Gold delivers it beautifully.
As adult Alison, Stone particularly shines in the heartbreaking number "Telephone Wire," which depicts Alison and Bruce's last drive together. She implores herself and her father to "say something" meaningful before it's too late. As Bruce, Reynolds effectively portrays both the good and bad sides of this deeply miserable yet compelling man. Guerrero, as mom Helen, gets a chance to say her piece in the powerful "Days and Days" (Bechdel, by the way, has written a second autobiographical book about her relationship with her mother). Rounding out the cast is Michael Doppe, who plays Bruce's various illicit-affair partners as well as, in a fantasy sequence, the lead singer in a "Partridge Family"-esque family band.
Set design by Andrea Bechert, costumes by B. Modern, musical direction by the reliable William Liberatore and direction by TheatreWorks head Robert Kelley all help to make the show a success. Though I had expected to see the production use more of Bechdel's original drawings, TheatreWorks follows the Broadway version's example of showing just one, of a touching moment depicting Small Alison and Bruce together.
"Fun Home" is a very personal and specific story of one woman and her memories of her dysfunctional family. However, it's one that resonates with anyone who's ever had a complicated relationship or who's struggled with finding and embracing their identity. That is to say, everyone.
What: "Fun Home."
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.
When: Through Oct. 28; see online for showtimes.
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.