Review: Relatable, Joyous & Painful Memories Come Vividly to Life at the Fun Home

"Fun Home" debuts at Circle Theatre.

Fun Home, the Tony-award winning musical, gets its Michigan Community Theatre premiere this month at Circle Theatre. The autobiographical musical was adapted for the stage based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, an aspect that the scenic designer for this production, Don Wilson, expertly integrated into the set.

White-framed rectangular boxes, hung at angles and serving as doorways, or painted on the floor and serving to separate the action in both time and space, steadily underscores the idea that we are experiencing the story through the memory of Bechdel; she sketches out each scene in framed cells and captions that are the language of her art.

We are reminded that we are always witnessing the world through her perspective, where the emotional impact can heighten the otherwise small details, revel in the joyous moments, and complicate the more painful ones.

In a truly beautiful performance by Eirann Betka as Alison, we also get to witness her witnessing these memories as they unfold in moments of her childhood and college-age younger selves (played by Evangeline Vander Ark as 10-year-old Small Alison and by Madeline Jones as 19-year-old Medium Alison).

Director and choreographer Jolene Frankey moves each character through the scenes to allow the audience to simultaneously experience the vivid memory by the older, now wiser, and younger, less aware, selves. Add to that the pitch-perfect songs created by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron and presented on stage with music by a seven-piece ensemble led by Scott Patrick Bell, and it’s a combination that will move the audience to laughter and to tears.

We know this experience. We have lived this life and have also looked back as we try to understand, accept, and forgive–others, ourselves–and to move forward. Whether or not the details of our families or coming of age stories align closely on the surface, in our hearts and common humanity we can all relate.

Alison’s story includes growing up with her parents (played by Jason Morrison as Bruce Bechdel and Caitlin Cusack as Helen Bechdel) and two brothers (played by Ethan Mathias as John Bechdel and Drake Selleck as Christian Bechdel) in a small Pennsylvania town. The family business is an inherited Funeral Home, and while there is utmost respect for the dead in the back room that doesn’t mean the children won’t have a little 1970s-style musical fun with the stock caskets creating make-believe commercials for the “Fun Home,” as they call it.

Mathias and Selleck, together with Vander Ark, do a remarkable job endearing the audience early on with their rousing performance, allowing us into the family dynamics where more serious matters begin to materialize.

We learn near the beginning of the show from 43-year-old Alison that her father was hit by a truck and died at age 44, likely a suicide. We also learn that he was a closeted gay man, which Alison’s mother tells her just months before he died. In contrast, and in a changing world, his death happens shortly after Alison’s liberating realization during her college years that she is a lesbian. In this context, we travel back through the memories as she recognizes in herself the significant moments in her past that at times clarify and other times leave more questions.

Jones provides a wonderfully self-conscious and exuberant performance as Medium Alison navigates falling in love with Joan (Katie Tamayo) and exploring her sexuality at college. We all get drawn into the excitement as Jones belts out the song “Changing my Major.” The memory brings a smile of fond amusement to the older Alison.

Vander Ark shows incredible depth during the song “Ring of Keys,” as she brings to light the early stirrings of identity in a young girl who finally sees and is mesmerized by a woman in dungarees, boots, and a short haircut; a woman who makes sense to her and gives her an inkling of previously unknown possibilities. Older Alison watches with such tenderness and hope as she moves protectively toward the girl, only for both to be stopped short by Mr. Bechdel’s unapproving glare.

Morrison capably portrays the complicated role of the father, who moves between charming and explosive in a heartbeat as he wrestles with his own identity. Cusack offers a quieter, but no less powerful turn in her half of this estranged marriage. Kobe Brown weaves throughout the story in several roles that help reveal the layers of the Bechdel family life.

Circle Theatre does justice to this groundbreaking musical, one that, as stated in the director’s program notes, features the first lesbian protagonist in mainstream musical theater history, a diverse array of LGBTQ+ issues are featured at the forefront of the story, and it was the first to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score by an all-female writing team. Also noted is the LGBTQA+ involvement in cast, crew, and the entire production team – giving authentic voice to Bechdel’s world on stage.

Fun Home runs through July 28 at Community Circle Theatre at Aquinas College Performing Arts Center. Ticket information available at Circle Theatre.

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