By Alec Clayton
Harlequin Productions is staging Fun Home, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel and directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson.
This musical is audacious, both incredibly sad and ridiculously funny, and indubitably realistic while being highly stylized. The story touches the heart, and — warning, it is disturbing, despite the fact that everything that could be a surprise is revealed almost from the start. It won five Tony awards in 2015, including Best Musical.
Alison Bechdel is a radical lesbian cartoonist. The plot of Fun Home is Bechdel telling her own story through cartoons drawn from her diary. It is the telling of her hesitant coming out as lesbian, her developing skill and confidence as a cartoonist, and her fight to survive a highly dysfunctional family.
We meet Alison at three different stages of her life, as portrayed by three different actors: as a young girl (Zoey Matthews), a college student (Eleise Moore) and a grown woman (Cassi Q Kohl*). All three actors are strong singers. Alison is the daughter of an English teacher named Bruce (Galloway Stevens*), who is a blustery and strict disciplinarian and a closeted gay man; and a timid, angry mother (Renée Hewitt) who plays piano and sings beautifully but struggles to accept her daughter’s sexual orientation. Other characters are Alison’s rebellious little brothers Christian (Lane Nixon) and John (Wade Mutchier), Mr. Bechdel’s student and other characters (all played by Christian Bolduc), and Alison’s girlfriend Joan (Michelle Mary Schaefer).
The Bechdels live in a funeral home — the family business, thus the title “Fun Home,” with “fun” short for funeral. That title is ironic, given the fun the boys have playing in the caskets, and sarcastic because living there is no fun at all.
Adult Alison narrates her own story of growing up, coming out and struggling to win affection and acceptance from her parents. In college, she wants to join a gay student union but is afraid to do so because she’s not ready to come out, even to herself. She falls in love with Joan, a strong, audacious activist, who convinces Alison to come out and be the person she really is. A joyful highlight of the play is when Alison sings that she is changing her major to “Sex with Joan.” This happens almost simultaneously with a scene in which her father has a secret sexual encounter in his home with a young man.
Despite scenes of family strife, heartbreak and suicide, Fun Home is a musical with a lot of humor, great songs and great voices, especially those of Bolduc, Kohl and Stevens.
The set by Jeannie Beirne, lighting by Mark Thomason and costumes by Mishka Navarre are simple and effective. The manner in which furniture and other set pieces are moved from scene to scene is like a dance — not in the least disruptive, but woven into the flow of the story.
As a side note, two popular Olympia acting veterans, Heather Matthews and Bruce Haasl, are understudies in this production. Matthews played grown-up Alison in South Puget Sound Community College’s production of Fun Home a few years ago, and Zoey Matthews, who plays small Alison in this production, is her child.
Fun Home runs an hour and a half with no intermission. Mask wearing is required.
7:30 p.m. Thursdays – Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 29;
special Wednesday matinee 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27
Harlequin Production’s State Theater, 202 4th Avenue East, Olympia
$42 • senior/military $38 • student/youth $25;
rush tickets and pay-what-you-choose available
*Denotes membership in the Actor’s Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States
Photos by Shanna Paxton Photography.