“I leapt out of the closet…” describes “Alison Bechdel”—the narrator and chief protagonist in “Fun Home”; “My dad and I grew up in the same Pennsylvania town; And he was gay, and I was gay…and he killed himself (and I became a lesbian cartoonist.)” Now, “The Chance Theater” at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center” in Anaheim California, is presenting this 2013 “Tony Award” Winner for “Best Musical” as the inaugural show of their twenty-second season, over on their “Cripe Stage”. Subtitled “A Family Tragic-Comic”, “Fun Home—The Musical” is based on the 2006 “Graphic Memoir” of the same name by Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, (author of the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”,) and features a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, while the music is by Jeanine Tesori (renowned for contributing to the scores of such recent hit musicals as “Shrek”, “Caroline Or Change” and “Violet”.) Moreover, the Direction for this new, more intimate re-staging is by Marya Mazor with Choreography by Hazel Clarke and Musical Direction by Lex Leigh.
While admittedly, it’s not always an easy show to watch (let alone presume to review) love it or hate it, respect or reject it’s compelling message, this is some powerful theater and the new production at “The Chance” lives up to, and honors all of the musical’s many strengths and virtues. Tackling themes of sexual-orientation, emotional abuse, dysfunctional family life–and ultimately, the enduring effect suicide can have on those ‘left behind’, the story progresses through a series of overlapping, non-linear vignettes, connected by narration from the character of “Allison Bechdel”–now in her 40’s, as she looks back on her life. Through them all is reflected her complex relationship with her brilliant but enigmatic, obsessively perfectionist, father “Bruce”—a high school English Lit. Teacher who is also the town’s Mortician and Proprietor of “The Bechdel Family Funeral Parlour” (–the title “Fun Home” is short for “Funeral Home”.) This stage musical, like the graphic novel on which it’s based, chronicle Ms. Bechdel’s life at three key junctures: Her childhood in rural Pennsylvania; her post-adolescence as a budding Oberlin College Student with a particular emphasis on her growing sexual awareness (I.E. her “coming out” as a Lesbian); and finally, her fast encroaching Middle-Age years. “I need real things to draw from because I don’t trust memory” the grown-up “Alison” explains as she attempts to ‘draw’ all of what is about to unfold.
At turns haunting, enthralling, humorous, devastating—and well deserving of every award it has earned, many situations depicted are bound to be bitingly familiar to anyone who lived through times and situations like these, which societal norms (or even some geographical areas today,) indubitably engendered. This sense of recognition and authenticity is aided immensely by Mazor’s insightful and sensitive direction. (For instance: Alison’s memory of nervously looking at the book of Lesbian photos in a bookstore, then reactively shoving it back on to the shelf only to guiltily sneak back later to buy it, is practically universal!) Adding to it, many of Ms. Kron’s lyrics are bouncy enough but tend towards a stream of consciousness nature (this is all told as a memory after all.) Perhaps the most remarkable element to them however, is the way they so naturally arise out of the dialogue, then simply fade back into it as credibly and as sublimely as has occurred in any musical. Yet, in spite of its LGBT-centered subject-matter don’t expect any rousing declamatory anthems like “I Am What I Am” or “The Best Of Times Is Now” as you’d find in its predecessors like “La Cage Aux Folles” or “Kinky Boots”; this is a deeper intensified, riveting work–a sincere and poignant tale of one woman’s journey of self and sexual-discovery even as her family is disintegrating. Indeed, it’s a bitter irony that in many ways, her journey should act as a trigger for this brood’s ensuing collapse: “I didn’t know Dad—I had no way of knowing—that my beginning would be your end,” she acknowledges pensively.
Toiling away at her work-table at one end of the performance space, her younger incarnation, “Little Alison” runs on calling for her father “Bruce”. “There’s you, there’s me” the elder “Alison” sings to their memory, before lamenting “but now I’m the one who’s 43 and stuck—I can’t find my way through, just like you (…am I just like you?)” The opening: “Welcome To Our Home On Maple Drive”, in which the collected “Bechdel” clan, referring to themselves as a ‘typical family quintet’, outline their Patriarch’s stern, near-fanatical, nature: “See how we polish and we shine; we rearrange and realign; everything is balanced and serene–like Chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” At its conclusion, standing on the sidelines “Alison” somberly echoes: “Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children, but the real object of his affection was his house.” Shortly after, the kids score one of the production’s bona-fide highlights as they perform a nifty “Jackson 5” inspired ‘commercial’ they ‘composed’ for the family business titled “Welcome To The Fun Home” (“—we only call it that in the family” they swiftly clarify, lest they risk raising their parents’ ire.) “Raincoat Of Love” is another rare full-on “Production Number” with the entire company done up like “The Partridge Family”, “The Brady Bunch”, “The Hudson Brothers” or “Andy & David: The Williams Twins”, as they all sing the praises of sham familial connections and other bogus liaisons (–marriages being prime among them,) while having “A magic shield of love to protect you from the bad…” Taking place in “Little Alison’s” imagination after she hears an especially vicious argument between her parents, it’s an ironic (and ingenious) inclusion to the score, playing up the often galling disparity between real families like that personified here, and popular “T.V. Families” of the era who came complete with Colgate bright smiles and pre-fab teen Idols counted within their ranks.
Fittingly, a trio of actresses take on the part of “Alison Bechdel” at three pivotal stages in her life. Headed by Ashlee Espinoza as the ‘mature’ “Alison”, she remains on stage for the duration of the entire proceedings recollecting her life, and how she’s evolved into the person she is. Ms. Espinoza’s approach to “Mature Alison” is that of an intense but unassuming Androgyne whose presence through it all (–it’s too strong and stalwart to simply call it a ‘portrayal’) is nothing short of Stunning! Although the majority of her comments and song verses are portioned out in small, but incisive increments—and even then usually prefaced by saying : “Caption” (as if she’s preparing to capture the moment as one of her single panel cartoons,) these, by their very brevity, makes her contributions all the profounder. Vocally, her sharpest interlude transpires by way of the song, “Telephone Wire” wherein “Alison” ruefully recounts a drive she took with her father on what would be the very last night they’d be together: “Say something! Talk to him!” She desperately urges her former, naïve and guiless self; “Say something—ANYTHING! Doesn’t matter what you say—just make the fear in his eyes go away…” Loaded with every kind of heartsick ‘could’ve been’, they don’t come any more touching than this. Then there’s Holly Reichert is “Little Alison” (circa age 8,) and Madelyn Velasquez as “Medium (or Teenaged) Alison”.
Young Miss Reichert has a sonorous singing voice that belies her tender years, which happily, she gets to show off frequently in this role. Her lyrical soliloquy “Ring Of Keys’ (when the girl encounters a burley, old-school “Butch” Lesbian,) is well delivered: “I KNOW YOU!” she asserts with a barely suppressed, giddy thrill. “Party Dress” is another engaging moment for this talented lass as “Little Alison” portentously runs afoul of her temperamental dad over, of all things, a pink party dress and matching hair barrettes: “I despise this dress!” she sulks; “What’s the matter with boy’s shirts and pants?! This dress makes me feel like a clown!” As the slightly older ,“Middle Alison”—a brand new student at Oberlin College and away from home for the very first time, Ms. Velasquez triumphs with one the show’s lighter offerings after the teenaged “Alison” (–who up until then was comfortable in considering herself to be ‘Asexual’,) finally kisses a girl named “Joan” and finds she likes it! The morning after their intimate tete-a-tete, she joyfully launches into the buoyant “I’m Changing My Major To Joan”. Her rapid-fire barrage of lyrics in this one are not only funny-as-Hell, they’re also curiously bittersweet too (—either way, you can’t help but applaud her morning after ‘awakening’!) In the end, the three “Alisons” join together for a watershed moment during “Flying Away” (–one of the only times all appear on stage at the same time,) as each recollect through verse, a prior introduced moment or memory, involving ‘their’ father, now gone–leaving them to try and comprehend what has dreadfully come about.
Ron Hastings is also a dramatic force to be reckoned with as Alison’s obsessive Dad, “Bruce Bechdel”. As we quickly learn, it was he who encouraged his daughter to be an artist, but their real understanding of one another—even in retrospect, it seems–was never exactly smooth sailing. At one point “Middle Alison” cluelessly accuses him of only thinking of himself: “He has to be the expert!” she seethes; “Lots of wisdom and advice about things he doesn’t know anything about! I’m Gay—which means I’m not like him–and I’ve never been like him and he just can’t deal with that! He wants to be the Intellectual, Broadminded, Liberal Bohemian but he can’t pull it off because he can’t deal with me!” In both acting and singing, Hastings has numerous smaller–but nonetheless significant–chances to impress (-and that he certainly does;) but his most stupefying time on-stage is unveiled through his 11 O’Clock soliloquy—“Edges Of The World” as he frenetically exposes the inner-torment this man has spent his entire life trying to keep under wraps until he simply can’t anymore. As the last lingering notes fade, he casually steps in front of two beaming lights symbolizing the headlights of an oncoming truck. “I’m older and it’s harder when you’re older to begin…” he confesses to his daughter (through the auspices of her presumptive memory of what happened.) Just as astonishing is Jennifer Richardson as his wife (and “Alison’s” mother,) “Helen Bechdel”, who herself bestows a genuinely ‘powerhouse’ performance! The local Music Teacher and sometime amateur Actress, “Mrs. B” suspects something’s afoot (–apparently again,) when “Bruce” suddenly hires a dashing young assistant with a Burt-Reynolds moustache, whom he proceeds to seduce upstairs while she languidly (–or is that ‘resignedly’?) sits at the piano in the living room. This develops into her world-weary intermezzo called “Helen’s Etude”. Just through her posture and some absent-minded vocalizing, soon it is obvious that she’s met MANY of her husband’s “Roys” before: “You’d be surprised what I guy my age can do” Bruce roguishly tells his new would-be ‘conquest’ over a clandestine glass of Sherry. Beyond this, she verifies how intense and superlative a voice she truly has–and how capable she is of using it, when sometime later, “Helen” reveals to her daughter all the sacrifices she’s made over the years, (along with every other compromise she’s had to make in order to maintain ‘wedded bliss’ with her husband.) Her ‘confession’ is called “Days And Days”: “That’s how it happens—days of bargains I made because I thought as a wife I was meant to, and now my life is shattered and laid bare…” Undoubtedly her crowning-moment late in the proceedings, the lilting manner through which she conveys it plaintively underscores its unvarnished forcefulness, as “Helen’s” repressed misery becomes palpable (another benefit to being in such an intimate playing space.)
As this is an ensemble effort in every sense, fine support is handed over by another quartet of actors who may not always be in the center spotlight, but without whose commendable contributions throughout, this production would be far less venerable. Serving up several brief but memorable feats of acting, Matt Bolden may be playing multiple roles–but they’re all the same basic part: Whether he’s the fore-mentioned “Roy”(–the good-natured lawn-cutter and general assistant around the house and family business,) “Mark” (a High School Junior—and a juvenile,) or “Pete”, a client making arrangements for the funeral of a recently deceased relative, at one time or another they’re all (by and large) waiting to be another potential notch on “Bruce’s” sexual belt (–even the under-aged ones!) It’s all done strictly on the ‘downlow’ of course, but that still doesn’t keep “Mr. Bechdel” from getting arrested and charged with “furnishing a Minor with a ‘Malt Beverage’”—or that’s what he tells his daughter at any rate, when trying to account for why he’s been ordered to see a Psychiatrist in Danville. (“I believe that’s what they call a euphemism” The Adult Alison, looking on, communicates from the periphery.) Also ovation worthy are Reese Hewitt as “Christian Bechdel” and Christopher Patow as “John Bechdel”–Alison’s brothers (one younger, one older.) Lending their own laudable vocal talents and enthusiasm to such ‘family’ endeavors as “Welcome To Our House On Maple Drive”, “Come To The Fun Home” and “Helen’s Etude”, each also supplies a few nice comedic (or at least lighter) observations or gag lines, which help to ‘lift the mood’ during some otherwise serious and dour undertakings. Ketino Christopher also stands out as “Alison’s” easy-going college Grrrl-friend, “Joan” who gives her the initial encouragement to ‘come out’ to her parents (even if it’s only via a letter.) She also gives our heroine her first girl-on-girl kiss, and as such is the focus of “Middle Alison’s” ebullient “I’m Changing My Major To Joan”.
Performed sans intermission and largely as a ‘theater-in-the round’ production, this streamlined, tightened and heightened re-envisioning of the Tony Award winning hit is spread out physically but feels uniquely ‘homey’ and comfortable gratis Bradley Kaye’s clever Scenic Design–making use of the entire auditorium and the walls that encircle it. Suggesting (if only metaphorically) your average middle-class residence, that it’s also a funeral home is entirely incidental. Look close enough and you’ll also observe that the ‘paintings’ and ‘wall decorations’ placed about the theater favor a half finished/half sketched motif (just like you’d find in a comic strip or graphic novel,) thus recalling the show’s illustrative source material. Likewise, Bradley Lock’s spot-on 70’s era Costume Designs hearken back to the subtle (and at times, not so subtle)…uh, let’s say ‘elan’ that was such a part of the early years of the ‘me decade”, so it might be fair to warn interested parties that they should be prepared for a goodly share of apparel that could best be dubbed “Groovy Chic”. This encompasses such items as wide-ties and flared pants—including plaid slacks (and to think that these were really a ‘thing’ once!) If that weren’t enough, throw in the pink and white sequined rose patterned vests and tight white bell-bottoms used in the big “Raincoat Of Love” extravaganza. Augmenting these, while enhancing the overall aura of authenticity running all through the entire show, are the “just-this-side-of shaggy” hair styles each performer sports. Not to be overlooked either is the substantial contribution made by Lex Leigh who, besides being the production’s Musical Director, also serves triple duty, conducting the four-piece band situated behind a curtain on the Stage Left wall, as well as acting as the Keyboardist for same.
Proof that often our most vital memories won’t ‘Rest In Peace”, one thing you can be ‘rest assured’ of: you’ll be oh, so gratified once you’ve experienced this show! After “Previewing” January 31st through February 7th, “Fun Home” officially debuted on Saturday February 8th and will play through Sunday, March 1st, 2020, at “The Chance Theater @ The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”, located at 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, CA. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7:30 PM., Fridays at 8:00 PM., Saturdays at 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets and reservations may be obtained by calling: (888) 455-4212, or logging onto www.ChanceTheater.com . Special Discounts are also available for Children (ages 4 through 12,) Seniors, Students, and those in the Military.
Production Photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio (https://trueimagestudio.com ) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater” (http://www.ChanceTheater.com ) Special Thanks To Casey Long, Oanh Nguyen, Marya Mazor, Hazel Clarke, Lex Leigh And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2020 Production Of “Fun Home” For Making This Story Possible.