Review: ‘Fun Home’ a musical that matters

Alison (Moira Stone) and her father, Bruce (John Jensen), share a telling moment in Vermont Stage’s “Fun Home.” PHOTO BY LINDSAY RAYMONDJACK

BURLINGTON — “Fun Home,” which won five 2015 Tony awards — including Best Musical — is one of the most coveted theater properties in the country. Amazingly, Vermont Stage got it— and it couldn’t have landed in better hands. The Flynn Center’s resident professional theater company opened its entertaining and deeply touching production this week at FlynnSpace, one that delivered both the pain and joy of this unique musical. With book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, it is based on Bolton cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 autobiographical graphic novel, named one of its “10 Best Books of the Year” by Time magazine. “Fun Home” relates a particularly difficult time in Bechdel’s life. Soon after she came out as a lesbian, her father committed suicide because of his own homosexuality. But it’s much more fun than it sounds. And it’s about more than repressed sexuality. A lot more. Bechdel grew up in a small Pennsylvania town with two younger brothers. Her mother, Helen, had professional theater training and her father, Bruce, was an English teacher who also ran the family business, a funeral home they nicknamed “Fun Home.” But his passion is his historic home — which he is constantly refining. Still, the thrust of the story is Alison’s troubled but loving relationship with her difficult and troubled father. From the beginning, she is constantly striving for his love. She gets it — but never quite freely. Along the way there are amusing and not-so-amusing tales of growing up, childhood misadventures, first love and facing family crises. But there is a permeating darkness beneath that Alison doesn’t quite understand — until it’s over. Not the usual simple fare of musicals, the story is handled with tenderness and depth, as well as plenty of humor. There are three Alisons simultaneously, the preteen “Small Allison,” the beginning college student “Medium Alison” and the adult Alison, who narrates as well as interacts with her father, and the direction isn’t linear. The story moves in and out of song easily, with the music, attractive but derivative, and the lyrics tenderly delivering the situations’ underlying feelings. In the fine Vermont Stage production directed by Robin Fawcett, seen Thursday, i t would be difficult to spotlight individual performers as the ensemble work was nearly seamless. Moira Stone anchored the performance as adult Alison, evenkeeled in retrospect while letting underlying feelings emerge. She was complemented by John Jensen in a stellar performance as Bruce, one that was at once troubling and sympathetic. Both proved sensitive and effective singers. A humanly touching performance was given by Elise Killian as “Medium Alison.” Her scenes with her first love Joan, an excellent Shea Dunlop, proved authentically heartfelt and entertaining. Perhaps the most difficult role of Alison’s mother was treated with dignity and real sympathy by Gina Fearn. Owen Leavey, called the “Supernumerary,” was quite effective and convincing as the various young men who came into Bruce’s life. Lulu Barr-Brandt, a Burlington sixth-grader, was amazing as “Little Alison,” giving her real personality and singing up a storm. She was joined by Luke Fitzgerald as her brother, Christian, led by the youngest, John, the irrepressible Rowan Williams, in their rollicking singing “ad” for the Bechdel Funeral Home. It was easily the most hilarious moment in the show. The show was buoyed by the spirited music direction of Randal Pierce and his fine six-piece pit band. However, occasionally audience members sitting near the band had difficulty hearing dialogue, despite the actors being miked. The awkward FlynnSpace made staging the fast-paced multi-location show a real challenge, but Chuck Padula’s simple and imaginative design, with set pieces emerging from the floor, and Bechdel-like projections by Anne Barrett, proved effective. Evocative costumes by Suzanne Kneller and lighting by Dan Gallagher rounded out the picture. Vermont Stage’s “Fun Home” was at once an indepth look at family life and a most entertaining 90 minutes of theater. VERMONT STAGE Vermont Stage Company presents “ Fun Home,” a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Oct. 4-29 at FlynnSpace, 153 Main St., in Burlington. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plusa2p.m.matineetoday (Oct. 7). Individual tickets are $39-$44.50, $35-$40 for students; call the Flynn Regional Box Office, 802-863-5966, or go online to www.flynntix.org. For subscriptions, starting at $99, still available, call Vermont Stage, 802-862-1497, or go online to www.vermontstage.org

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