By Barry Reszel
Victory Gardens Theater’s flawless production of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel‘s memoir musical Fun Home is superior to the New York production that earned this show the 2015 Best Musical Tony.
The Gary Griffin-directed, perfectly-cast, gorgeously lit (Paul Whitaker), simply set (Yu Shibagaki) production features top-tier musicianship and the finest of Chicagoland’s talents in Victory Gardens’ enviable performance space at the historic Biograph Theatre in Lincoln Park.
Superlatives begin with the show’s three Alisons depicting the graphic memoirist Bechdel. As the 43-year-old version, narrating and attempting to make sense of her life to that point, the magnificent Danni Smith owns the stage, interacting with her former selves, her grossly dysfunctional family and her coming-out first lover, Joan (well played by Danielle Davis).
“Medium Alison,” a 19-year-old Oberlin freshman discovering her sexuality, might just serve as the professional musical theatre coming-out role for wonderful, young Hannah Star. And as 10-year-old “Small Alison” who adores her odd dad while struggling with his often-controlling, psychotic behavior, Stella Rose Hoyt absolutely shone opening night (Sage Elliott Harper shares this role with Hoyt).
The three actresses embodying Alison take on two-thirds of the Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (lyrics and book) songbook; indeed, they take it on to perfection. With numerous highlights balancing Bechdel’s dark reality with her own attempts to understand through child’s and young adult’s eyes, the music reflects both the inner child and the struggling adult. The two meet in the touching finale, “Flying Away,” during which adult Alison sees the lone moment of balance in her life, punctuated by perfect harmony and accompanied by Music Director Doug Peck‘s wonderful orchestra, conducted by stellar keyboardist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster.
Good for Bechdel’s ability to grasp this singular balanced moment, because the autobiographic story of Fun Home, based on her own 2006 cartoon book memoir, is bat shit crazy. Ostensibly, it’s about Bechdel’s coming of age, emphasizing her relationship with her father, Bruce, a high school English teacher, funeral director (“Welcome to the Fun Home”) and old house restoration buff who expects their Victorian home kept to museum standards (“Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” hauntingly led by McKinley Carter as doormat wife Helen) and his family to accede to his demanding ways (“Party Dress”).
Alison’s own revelation of being gay then coming out to her parents while a college freshman is overshadowed by learning compulsive Bruce also had homosexual relationships, including some with partners under the age of consent. Four months after her coming out to her parents, Bruce dies by suicide when he stands in front of an oncoming truck. (A plot summary and production history may be read here.)
Indeed the magnificent Rob Lindley deserves Jeff consideration for his brilliant portrayal of Bruce. He reels in the audience with a seemingly benign, almost cute quirkiness before his truly sinister nature is understood, at which time anyone in the theatre closer to him than the nearest illuminated exit sign feels appropriately skeeved out.
Ultimately, as Bruce deemed to control the lives of his family, so does his story overshadow Alison’s. To this reviewer, that strips Fun Home‘s influence on advancing gay pride understanding and acceptance; that’s too bad.
Instead of focusing on “love is love is love” between two women or two men, it becomes more significant that the lesbian protagonist is the spawn of a pedophiliac father and his emotionally abused wife. And while it is certainly Bechdel’s right to search for and build up a single moment of balance in a tormented life, her story’s popularity may offer fodder to the intolerants’ skewed beliefs; that’s too bad, too.
That disappointment aside, do see Victory Gardens’ Fun Home. This production exceeds expectations for a Tony-winning Best Musical in every possible way.
Victory Gardens Theater presents “Fun Home” through November 19 at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.