Clever and cathartic, Fun Home at Front Porch Theatricals stirs the heart and memories of growing up despite the foibles of the grown-ups around us. Full of longing and never short on irony, Fun Home delivers the laughter, regret, and unconditional love inherent to being “family.” From its title (yes, that’s short for “funeral home”), to the eventual revealing of “Family…Secrets”–Front Porch Theatricals’ season theme–the acclaimed musical reminds that families that may not appear what they seem are comprised of members who each have a story to tell. And, hey, those of us who have to weather many a family loss and requisite grief-imposed experiences will appreciate the dark and witty humor in Fun Home. Those moments of laughter in the worst of times can indeed be healing.
Hats off to Front Porch Theatricals for adhering to a mission that matters–these days more than ever. It is important for regional audiences is the company’s commitment to staging musicals “that others may avoid” as suggested in the curtain speech during Friday’s opening night. The 9th season opener Bright Star dealt with the separation of an unwed mother and her child. Now, Fun Home, a regionally-produced premiere, depicts the emotional struggles of a family whose father is a closeted gay man. the tentacles of the family’s dilemma is explored through profound and powerful songs during 100 minutes with no intermission.
The storyteller is queer artist Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist and writer whose graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) fueled Fun Home, an intimate and musical family album. Three “stars” portray Alison at varied ages and comprise one-third of the nine person Front Porch cast.
The innovative show deservedly received 12 Tony nominations for the Broadway run, including nods to all three Alisons, and a Tony for best book and music. Composer Jenine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron aptly explore how growing up aligned with learning facts (aka family secrets) inform the eventual adult.
Deeply personal monologues set to music make Fun Home a singular contemporary classic to which LGBT audience members and their families and children may most relate. Superbly insightful, the 100 minute show reveals the father, mother and daughter carry on and meet their true selves on their journey.
Set in the tiny Clinton County town of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, Fun Home is Alison’s conjuring her childhood and young adult years for her possible autobiographical “cartoon.” The musical story traverses locations including her college in Ohio and New York’s Greenwich Village. The characters are first seen in the 1970s, so there’s a decidedly retro flavor.
The Tony-winning production Circle in the Square (where this writer saw the circularly-staged production in which set pieces moved seamlessly) before a national tour and subsequent regional productions, Fun Home is well-served by its intimate three-quarter configuration in the Hazlett. The artistic team works hard to overcome the need for on stage scene changes and transitions that require some furniture moving. Alison is always observing the action on stage, so integrating her presence and interaction throughout is well-managed. It is best to focus on the actors and not technical elements; Fun Home is a show that could essentially be performed on a practically empty stage or in your own living room).
Spencer Whale, who previously staged FTP’s Big Fish, tackles the venue set-up and concept with Briton Mauk, scenic designer. Some concepts may have been better realized with less while some perhaps more effective with just a bit more detail.
FTP stays true to the piece’s conceit that Alison is remembering details and moments as the action rolls along. Furniture begins as more practical and evolves to decorative Victorian pieces reflecting her father’s passion for finding antique treasures and restoring old houses.
By the end of the play, Alison is singing with her younger selves. Who gets to do that in a role? Well, meet the trio of actors who soar as singers and actors as three Alisons in Fun Home.
Opening the show is Drew Leigh Williams as Alison, the established cartoonist considering how to tell her own story. Williams is warm and smart, immersing her character through into the emotional journey of exploring the obvious and hidden truths of her father, including his apparent suicide in 1980 when Bechdel was 19 years old.
Next, Small Alison guides the story through childhood moments with her father as recalled with the opening number “It All Comes Back.” Liva Rocco’s charming and expert performance carries much of the show. Rocco may be small but she is indeed fierce in intent, vocals, and characterization. Avoiding the pitfalls of filling a famous role, Rocco makes the part her own with sweet perfection. Her “Ring of Keys” is a showstopper with her emotional journey through a song conveying Alison’s first-ever recognition that she finds women attractive–or at least intriguing–at age nine. Another FTP rising star, Rocco will continue to draw our focus on her ascent.
As Medium Alison, Nuala Cleary is moving and engaging while alternately curiosity and trepidatious as she discovers her sexual identity. Her sweet vocals and genuine take on the young adult Alison are spot on and relatable, applying her age appropriateness and talent to convey an important phase in Alison’s life. “I’m Changing My Major to Joan” takes second place for almost stopping the show as Cleary’s anxious adoration evokes the wonder and confusion of first love.
Pittsburgh’s Daniel Krell takes on the complex role of Bruce Bechdel. He is a father who juggles part-time mortician works in his family’s funeral home with teaching, antique collecting, restoration projects, and secret gay encounters. One of our region’s many compelling actors, Krell builds on Bruce’s paranoia and passions to portray an essentially loving but enigmatic father. His weaknesses threaten all of his relationships when his private frustrations emerge as anger and impatience. Krell manages the role’s challenges thoughtfully, running with the subtext and reality lurking beneath the surface. Krell’s scenes are strongest with young Alison who sensed Bruce’s duplicity, despite being too young to fully understand it. As he ages and she matures, their exchanges foreshadow the revelation of his true sexual identity and Alison’s realization of her own.
Krell’s powerfully heartfelt “Edge of the World” is Bruce’s unforgettable and bone chilling pinnacle when an empty stage and dark highway contrasts to Bruce’s obsessively decorated interiors.
Cynthia Dougherty masters the likewise cryptic Helen Bechdel, a woman who somehow remains true to aspects of herself while her marriage continually crumbles. Alison’s mother is an actor, singer and teach who tolerating her husband’s dalliances and restoration hobbies. Dougherty’s “Days and Days” eventually reveals the true story of Helen’s marriage through a vocal performance capturing the emotional tragedy of settling for a dishonest facade.
Essence Stiggers is a strong and savvy Joan, Medium Alison’s first love. Stiggers conveys the confident vantage point of being outside the Bechdel family drama as she moves from her captivating initial scenes with Alison to her first visit to the family home.
The other Bechdel children are played by Eammon McElfresh (Christian) and Daniel Frontz (John). Energetic and charming, they are key players in two of the family-oriented numbers with winning ways. For the signature “Come to the Fun Home,” they join Small Alison for a joyful commercial the kids create for their dad’s business. It’s witty and well-executed with choreography by Joe Jackson who provides wonderful movement for the cast throughout. The kids again team up, along with the rest of the company, for the perhaps Partridge Family-inspired “Raincoat of Love”.
All three youngsters keep up admirably with the grown-ups in the over-the-top tribute to family ties and resilience–all an ironically joyful celebration that belies the Bechdel family’s true colors. The super sunshiny and yellow circus-striped costumes are intentionally over the top, while designer Valerie M. Webster is more subdued in establishing the ’70s and ’80s flavor of outfits throughout.
Tristan A. Hernandez is versatile in multiple roles including several young men Bruce finds attractive, and Bobby Jeremy, the cheesy leader of the sunny company number.
Music Director Deana Muro, who plays keyboards, sensitively conducts the terrific offstage ensemble of six through the scores varied styles and moods. Sound Designer Angela Baughman provides amplification that works effectively throughout for the actors and music, while balance issues on opening night are bound to be mitigated with the run. Lighting designers Andrew David Ostrowski and Greg Messmer adeptly illuminate the big and small spaces of the action, including one action-stopping event.
Properties Manager Rachel Ferrari-Engel rises to the challenge of specific antique, artist, and funeral home gear, including a well-polished casket that’s very centric to the kids big number.
While the curious might wonder about the outcomes for Alison’s mother and two brothers following the loss of their father, the focus is on Alison. The profound finale when all three actors sing “Flying Away” together reassures the audience of human resilience and the power of love. Take that love with you into this remarkable show and with you when you fly back into the real world.
Fun Home runs at the New Hazlett Theater through Sun., Aug. 25. Securing tickets ASAP is strongly recommended as Forch Porch productions are prone to sell-out. Content would likely be considered PG-13 due to adult themes and some sexually suggestive situations that aren’t out of the realm of what’s on prime-time television. Tickets are on sale via phone at 1-888-718-4253, or online. Follow the company at www.frontporchpgh.org.
Photography Credit: Photo 1- Marnie Quick; Photo 2-Deana Muro Photography; Photo 3 & 4-Greg Messmer
Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh LinkedIn
Categories: Archived Reviews