Thursday, 15 February 2018

Fun Home a sad, fun musical photo album
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlightsPersonally I prefer graphic novelist Alison Bechdel's original subtitle to her 2006 book of memoirs -- A Family Tragicomic -- to what Lisa Kron has called her 2013 stage play adaptation, A Coming-of-Age Musical. Kron scripted the book and lyrics for the 27 songs tunesmith Jeanine Tesori wrote for the 2015 Broadway production. And the two were the first all-woman tag-team to ever win a Tony Award for best musical score. So maybe I'm a half-note or more flat on this.

Alison (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) will spend her entire adult life as a lesbian looking for the keys to unlock her upbringing in Pennsylvania after her gay father suicided her second semester at Oberlin College.
Photo credit David Cooper
But the reason I prefer "family tragicomic" is because it conjures up tasty synonyms such as "melodramatic" and "burlesque" and the elegant "harlequinade". A host of theatrical antics most of us can relate to when reflecting back on various instants in our own family histories. "A coming-of-age musical" is so blasé it captures to-a-T such comparatively easy and anodyne scripts as Peter Pan and Avenue Q.

But mere quibble. Fact is Bechdel's story is of smalltown rural Pennsyvania. Her coming-of-age is code for a gal who comes out and embraces her lesbian spirit in 1979 at age 19. What makes her autobiography so compelling is that along the way she learns that her father -- the local undertaker as well as high school English teacher -- is gay. Dad is destined to have his life snuffed out in a heartbeat by a truck roaring along rural Route 150 four months later at age 44. No note left. But on the heels of mom filing for divorce and Alison's coming out, suicide seems to fit. So the show is how Alison comes of age in the telling of this tragicomic tale.

How it's all put togetherAkin to the original novel, the musical is here in its Canadian premiere. It tells its story from three age-perspectives. Small Alison (Jaime MacLean), Medium Alison (Kelli Ogmundson) and grown-up Alison (Sara-Jeanne Hosie). Among their dialogue and songs they spin out the saga of how life played out for Alison on Maple Avenue in Lock Haven, PA starting about 1968 or so when she was in grammar school.

The three Alisons join together in the finale "Flying away" that sums up on many levels what growing up and losing our parents -- in order to find ourselves -- is all about.
Photo credit David Cooper
Reading about the script I was put-to-mind of Kentucky novelist Walker Percy's indelible line from Love in the Ruins about family histories : "What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past, the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of." The ambiguity families are stuck with. The confusion. The opaqueness. The paradoxes. 

Indeed, how does a daughter coming out in Ronald Reagan's America embrace the realities of her Roman Catholic upbringing, her distant teacher/actress mom Helen (Janet Gigliotti), a life shared funnin' as a kid with two brothers (Glen Gordon & Nolen Dubuc) and her "gay" and loving but obsessive-compulsive tyrannical dad Bruce (Eric Craig) whose former students are often the objects and targets of his lust.

Director Lois Anderson probably sums it all up best : "A tension exists between a daughter coming out, coming of age, flying, soaring, and her father simultaneously falling, spinning, plummeting, much like a modern-day Icaraus." 

What the show brings to the stage : The title suggests the chumminess of a state fair pavilion or a circus sideshow. Perhaps a traveling carny's hall of mirrors. In truth the expression was the family's easy and ironic abbreviation for the family funeral home dad inherited from Gramps and runs on-the-side in their small town of less than 10,000 souls.

Brothers Christian (Glen Gordon) and John (Nolan Dubuc) ham it up doing a mock-funeral home advertising schtick with sister Alison (Jaime MacLean) called "Come to the Fun Home" during their more innocent days as kids.
Photo credit David Cooper
So memory witnessed through a glass darkly is what Alison struggles with as she tries to grapple and pin-to-the-mat the complex emotions she is now dealing with. Sketching out one of her panels she suggests in straightforward (glib? awkward?) fashion the following as caption to accompany her cartoon : "Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist." 
The word "became" embraces a continuum. And it is along and amidst that continuum of space-&-time we witness the family in their various stages of age, personality, and pathos. But also their fun, their friendly jibes, their fanciful moments. All of which is what family is, family does.

"Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children" is an early Kron / Tesoro ironic piece. A later song is "Let me introduce you to my gay dad". The show ends with Alison's poignant "This is what I have of you" sketches followed by all three Alisons harmonizing in the "Flying away" finale about their dad Bruce that on opening night was a show-stopper. Particularly Alison's ultimate epiphany : "Every so often there was a moment of perfect balance / When I soared above him."

Production values that hi-lite the script : Amir Ofek's set is rich and smart, a wonderful exploitation both visually and mechanically of the Granville Island stage. From its tapestry wallpaper to its crown mouldings 15 feet above, the baby grand piano, the velvet Victorian furniture, the overhead chandelier and the Tiffany table lamps, it clutches and encompasses the senses but also leaves enough open space to serve dutifully as Fun Home's embalming chamber, a college dorm room and a NYC crash-pad during USA's bi-centennial year celebrations. 

Effectively lit -- the back-lighting particularly -- by Alan Brodie plus faithful period costumes by Amy McDougall. Orchestra excellence the night through in modulation and crisp execution but also from its cello and violin solo riffs : together the players added a wealth of audial value to the evening's enjoyment.

Still and all the primary production value hands-down is the exceptional musicality -- songs & lyrics both -- by Team Tesori-&-Kron. Their cadences and harmonies and syncopated solos and tuneful stories are gripping, imaginative and utterly evocative of the powerful emotions mostly "at work" here -- every now and then, thank god, "at play".  

This is how one makes a musical out of subject matter as unique and idiosyncratic as Bechdel's A Family Tragicomic.  Words and notes tripping blithely and neurotically and compellingly over one another : the bitter reprise of "Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue" by Mom was superb, as was "Ring of keys" by Small Alison, each song both startling and wondrous.

Acting pin-spots : Chief narrator is Sarah-Jeanne Hosie as Alison the 43-year-old looking back on her childhood, her coming out, her dad and his pent-up and deep-rooted homosexuality. Director Lois Anderson's blocking and staging of Hosie was wholly effective as she hovered above and among her younger selves -- Jaime MacLean as "Small" and Kelli Ogmundson as "Medium" -- who filled in the necessary narrative details at Senior's feet with vigorous imagination and creative flow. 

As dad Bruce, Eric Craig was stunning in his grasp of being a repressed Rotarian Roman Catholic in a small Pennsylvania town back in the day. He knew as a high school sophomore in 1950 that his sexual and emotional urges would be trained, lifelong, on the male gender. The social demands for Dad Bruce to "go through the motions" as a married man brought out a bi-polar interpretation of the role that reflected tremendous nuance. 

His sad suicide may have provided him relief from how mis-fit he was for his time-&-place. But understandably no end of angst and anger and agony for daughter Alison such that she would have to be nearly his age before she could finally, frontally, confront her family's fateful truths. 

Who gonna like : A more neutral word than "homophobic" for people who prefer traditional interpersonal and sexual and married relationships is "heteronormative", the academics instruct us. Viewers who consider themselves members of that cadre would likely find Fun Home anything but. 

But for others in search of a marvellous and superior and utterly phenomenal theatrical evening, the Tesori/Kron music-&-lyrics-&-storyline collaboration is colossal and monumental entertainment. Its imaginative reach made as profound an impact on me in 2018 as Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story did when it exploded onto the silver screen in 1961. Fun Home is freakishly good stuff. 

Particulars : From the original graphic novel written & cartoon'd by Alison Bechdel. Book & lyrics by Lisa Kron.  Music by Jeanine Tesori. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Granville Island Theatre.  On until March 10, 2018Run-time 100 consecutive minutes,no intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Lois Anderson.  Musical Director Jonathan Monro. Set Designer Amir Ofek.  Costume Designer Amy McDougall.  Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Assistant Stage Manager Koh McRadu.

Orchestra : Niko Friesen (Percussion). Sarah Ho (Violin, viola). Jonathan Monro (Conductor, piano).  Laine Longton (Cello). [Plus performers below as noted adding their chops.]

Performers :  Mike WT Allen (Sailor; Diner; reeds).  Eric Craig  (Bruce Bechtel).  Nolen Dubuc (John Bechdel).  Nick Fontaine  (Roy; Mark; Peter,; Bobby; Jeremy; bass).  Janet Gigliotti (Helen Bechdel).  Glen Gordon (Christian Bechdel).  Sarah-Jeanne Hosie (Alison [adult]). Jaime MacLean (Small Alison).  Kelli Ogmundson  (Medium Alison).  Sarah Vickruck (Joan; guiitar). 


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