By Philip Pearce
FUN HOME, which opened last weekend at Pacific Rep’s Golden Bough Theatre, is touted as the first mainstream Broadway musical whose leading character is a lesbian. Discovering that fact probably explains why two members of the opening night audience stood up and walked out about twenty minutes into the action. But Fun Home isn’t really about cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s homosexuality or that of her charming but tormented father Bruce. Adapted by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron from Bechdel’s graphic memoir, it’s about a daughter’s longing to connect with a charismatic parent she adored but never fully understood.
If you’re looking for pretty tunes and catchy lyrics, you won’t find many in Fun Home. It’s a powerful example of a new brand of realistic American drama told in words and music. Like last year’s Next to Normal at the Jewel in Santa Cruz, Fun Home doesn’t offer the lure of crowd-pleasing musical numbers. Characters speak and sing in immediate response to what’s happening in an emotionally charged story.
The script creates three Alison Bechdels, each played by a different actress. River Navaille is a sensitive and assured center of stability as the mature artist who learns to organize and understand a hodge-podge of chaotic family memories by reassessing (“It All Comes Back”) and cartooning them on her drawing board. Past and present interact. Provocative hints about future crises rise and remain temporarily unresolved.
A key figure on the drawing board is the childhood self the Mature Alison sees pleading with her father Bruce to lift her onto his shoulders and “play airplanes” so she can “see all of Pennsylvania.” But Bruce is too busy dolling up the family home he has redesigned in Victorian style for an inspection by a lady from the local historical society.
In the double-cast role of the Small Alison, a focused and self-assured Colette Gsell of Bay View Academy was an opening night revelation. Small enough to be convincing as a ten-year-old, this dynamic upper middle schooler knows how to act and hits all the right notes both vocally and emotionally with an insight that would do credit to a player twice her age. The role is played at half the other performances by Lily Bunch.
Small Alison and her talented younger brothers Christian and John (Riley and Averil Mabry) do vocal and choreographic wonders with a slapstick send up of an imaginary TV ad for the funeral home which employs papa Bruce to sell coffins and apply cosmetics to corpses. “Come to the Fun Home” gives the play its title and is a nice ironic comment on the roller-coaster dysfunctions of the real Bechdel household. Eva Ushakoff plays Christian and Meredith Evans plays John in half the performances
Apart from the title song, the only other ensemble number that in any way suggests a Broadway show stopper is “Raincoat of Love,“ Small Alison’s dreamworld re-imagining of a blissfully perfect Bechdel family modeled on “The Partridge Family” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
For all its dark shadows and sharp angles, Fun Home has plenty of comedy, much of it the work of the wonderfully flexible, outgoing and touching Sylvie Pratt as Medium Alison., struggling with college life and her lesbianism. Once the suburban inhibitions collapse, she declares to anyone willing to listen that after a night with a new friend from the Lesbian Union, “I’m Changing My Major to Joan.” Niki Moon plays the more experienced Joan with quick humor and brisk compassion.
Encouraged by an increasingly satisfying love relationship, Alison swallows hard and writes home to break the news that she’s a practicing lesbian. Prepared for fireworks, she feels let down by the limpness of her parents’ response. Mother Helen, acted with quiet dignity and a gorgeous soprano voice by Jennifer Newman, seems mildly distressed but anxious as always to avoid facing any major issue. Daddy Bruce (Adam Saucedo) is provocatively evasive. And little wonder. Home on break, Alison learns from Helen (“Days and Days and Days”) that Bruce has been cruising and seducing men—including under-aged boys—almost since his wedding day. Helen’s revelation explains Bruce’s earlier puzzling encounters with a series of young male employees and high school students, all of them played by Michael Blackburn.
If Alison is the most appealing character in the play, Bruce is far and away the most complex and tragic. At first glance, Adam Saucedo’s strong baritone and sturdy build suggest he’s a puzzling choice for the role of this obsessive esthete. But working against type, he creates a heartbreaking figure plagued by explosive enthusiasms, caught up in screaming battles with his wife and prey to a pathetic sexual vanity. He’s all about slick surfaces. He browbeats Helen and the kids into obsessive dusting and polishing as the historic society visit approaches (“Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue”). He can’t pass a mirror without persuading himself he “still could break a few hearts.” Capable of warmth and sincere tenderness, he suddenly turns on his heel and pours screaming contempt on a piece of Alison’s homework he thinks won‘t impress her teacher.
All the rage and evasion give way to the quiet and uncertainty of the most powerful scene of the evening. Bruce and Alison, each finally aware of the other’s sexuality, take a ride in the family car. She is all star-struck hope. This could be the moment they meet and share and forgive at a deep level. But Bruce can only polish the surface of their relationship. He suggests, of all things, a visit to a gay bar. When she reminds him that, like some of the guys he has given lifts in the same vehicle, she is under 21, he sinks into an incoherent meditation on a 14-year-old male classmate he once loved.
There’s a kind of Willy Loman inevitability in what happens to Bruce. Yet Lisa Kron’s script, without a hint of sugar coating, finds a convincing final upsurge of hope as the three Alisons join in a recap of the old game of airplanes called “Flying Away.”
It’s a moving production with adroit use of the Golden Bough’s revolving stage to take on and shift props and furniture from one location and time frame to the next. If I have a caveat, it’s a doubt about the high sound level director Stephen Moorer and music director Don Dally impose on a very intimate script. The opening night music and dialogue reverberated all over the auditorium with a force that often trampled on any possibility of texture and contrast between logically high voltage moments like “Come to the Fun Home” and more reflective and quiet ones like “Helen’s Etude.”
Fun Home is such an immediate and intimate event that I even wondered wistfully whether PacRep has ever considered staging a musical in the always welcome accessibility of the Circle Theatre.
The show continues weekends through March 4th.
Photo by Patrick Tregenza