REVIEW: VA Stage’s ‘Fun Home’ Puts The Fun In Dysfunction

    Virginia Stage Company takes yet another successful leap of faith with the LGBTQ-themed Tony Award-winning musical.

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    Photo: Samuel W. Flint

    Virginia Stage Company takes yet another successful leap of faith with Fun Home, the Tony-award winning musical adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name.

    The story concerns Bechdel’s discovery of her own homosexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life. It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist and was the first Broadway musical to win a Tony for Best Original Score for an all-female writing team.

    This could be heady stuff for many in an era when the LGBTQ community is facing a variety of dangerous challenges.

    But when it comes right down to it, Fun Homeis really nothing more or less than the singular tale of a family coming to terms with the secrets that plague them as a unit and as individuals. Queer director Jessica Holt does a soaring, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive job at bringing it to life at the Wells Theater.

    Told from Allison’s current-day perspective, the narrative does not follow a through-line. Instead it bounces back and forth between Allison’s life at three distinct periods in her life. Three actresses portray Alison: Small Alison in her younger years in the Seventies; Medium Alison, the college-aged version who struggles with coming out; and the adult narrator of the show. 

    This is a memory piece, and the three versions of Alison interact and reflect together onstage throughout.

    Equity performer and Broadway veteran Kate Fahrner’s interpretation of Allison is the center that pulls the vignettes together. Fahrner (who whether by chance or design resembles the real-life Allison) explores her character’s past with a wide range of emotions. While she is present on stage for a vast majority of the show, she’s adept at being the observer of her memories by reacting with a gentle smile, agitated hand gestures, or drawing in her ever-present sketch book as she documents her memories.

    Sarah Stewart Chapin (making her Virginia Stage debut) is a delight as Medium Allison, who while in college struggles to come come out. Chapin’s endearing interpretation of Allison hit home with the audience, who reacted with delight to “Changing My Major,” a show-stopping ode to her first sexual experience with a fellow student named Joan. 

    Perhaps the most delightful version of Allison is presented by Caleigh Howell, a seventh grader at Princess Anne High School. She portrays 10-year-old Young Allison as she struggles against her father Bruce’s obsessive demands and begins to identify her inchoate sexuality with a wide-eyed dreamy innocence. At one point, she notices a butch delivery woman at a luncheonette and feels an inexplicable kinship with her. She attempts to make sense of it all in the show’s iconic number, “Ring of Keys” 

    Craig Waletzko as father Bruce is probably the most complicated of the characters in Fun Home(which is shorthand for the family business, a funeral home). He portrays Bruce with aplomb that is at once empathetic and horrifying. Here’s where the heart of Fun Home  reveals itself: Bruce is a closeted gay man struggling with demons of this own. When we first meet Bruce at the top of the show, he’s playing airplane with Young Alison, a joyful interaction between father and daughter. It’s a moment we remember throughout the rest of Bruce’s journey of lying to his family and his wife, cruising for one-night stands with anonymous men, and finally being arrested and sent to psychiatric counseling–or worse. We’re never really sure because if it’s one thing this family’s good at, it’s obscuring the full truth.

    In one particularly evocative scene, Bruce takes the three siblings to New York City for the bicentennial celebration in July 1976. Most gay men of a certain age recall that summer as a pivotal moment in our history when hundreds of thousands of sailors from other countries crowded the City including, perhaps, the first man to ever be infected with AIDS.

    With that history firmly in mind, I was mortified when Bruce put his young children to bed in sleeping bags on the floor of what appeared to be Hotel Hell, then slipped out the door to cruise the streets. Young Allison awakes just as he is leaving. “I’m going out to get a newspaper,” he tells her. Of course, she knows it’s a lie. On some level, she knows that her father has been lying all along.

    Needless to say, this is not your traditional Broadway musical. But it does have enough of those rousing moments to keep it light and at times humorous. “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” opens the show with a delightful tongue-in-cheek look at how, under Bruce’s obsessive-compulsive personality, this particular family knows how to put lipstick on a pig. All is well at Happiness House. Just don’t look too closely.

    We are also get a tour of the funeral home, where the three young siblings launch into their version of a totally inappropriate and hysterical television commercial for the business, “Come To The Fun Home.” The staging centers around a coffin on a dais, and the children perform a marvelously choreographed number that has them popping out of the casket, grandstanding on top of it, and dancing their asses off. 

    April Poland as the long-suffering matriarch of the family is at her best when she comes clean to Allison about her father’s indiscretions in “Days and Days.” Turns out she’s been aware of his sexual proclivities ever since they were married. The pain in her soliloquy is matched in equal measure by her resigned-to-her-fate body language. 

    Bert Mather plays a number of Bruce’s different love interests over the course of the show with a strong, smoldering presence—and the implication that he is just the kind of guy Bruce is attracted to. Rachel Felstein as Medium Alison’s college girlfriend is exactly the kind of gay friend any person struggling with coming out needs: empathetic, gentle, and supportive.

    Director Jessica Holt and Assistant Director Connor Norton clearly understand the intimacy necessary for Fun Home to work. The audience must feel a connection to this family so that this closeness can breed empathy, and they achieve that with flying colors. For example, the orchestra is not in the pit, but placed far upstage, thrusting the performers downstage, closer to the audience.

    Contributing to that sense of intimacy are the minimalist sets by Reid Thompson and lighting by Annemarie Duggan. Sound Designer Christopher Barnes does a spectacular job of weaving in barely discernible audio that helps the audience shift between time periods such as Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and sound bites from “The Brady Bunch.” Costume Designer Jeni Schaefer works wonders with 70s Vintage and 80s MTV designs. Music director Joanna Li and the orchestra are on point with a mostly subtle and at times jarring musical interpretation that enhances the tale.

    This is ‘show’ in its finest sense. In addition to spectacular and innovative production values, Fun Home is a relatable story on every level. As director Jessica Holt said, “At the heart of it, this play is about a father and a daughter, about a family with a secret, the ecstasy of being who you are, and the agony of hiding the same thing.”

    It is a brilliant addition to Virginia Stage Company’s 40th anniversary season. 

    Running Time: 1 hour thirty minutes, with no intermission.

    Fun Home plays through February 10, 2019, at the Wells Theater, 108 E Tazewell St, Norfolk. For tickets, call the box office at 757.627.1234 or purchase them online.