All theatre should invite the audience into the story. Be it through a character, a turn of phrase, or a lyric, a connection should be made that makes a show worth more than just the 90 minutes of entertainment it provides. This doesn’t always happen—it almost never happens with the magnitude that it does in Fun Home, a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling memoir by the same name.
Fun Home opens with Alison (Amy Jo Jackson), who at age 43 is a cartoonist looking into the depths of her memory, and her attic, to find inspiration for a set of comics about her life, her queer identity, and how her life was shaped by her father.
She pulls out a cardboard box as a middle-aged man enters the theatre round with an exact replica of what she’s holding. As he begins rifling through the box with a little girl—young Alison (Marissa Simeqi)—by his side, adult Alison circles around them taking notes, and it becomes obvious that she is within her own memory.
The man pulls out linen and a coffee pot, identical to that in adult Alison’s box. He talks to young Alison, showing her the treasure he’s found. The dialogue cuts back to the 43-year-old protagonist.
“Did you ever imagine I’d hang onto your stuff, Dad?” she asks the man in the memory that can’t hear her. “Me either. But I guess I always knew that someday I was going to draw you.”
Adult Alison observes scenes from her childhood, often interjecting to make a comment on what was actually happening, instead of just accepting whatever her father, Bruce (Todd Yard), told her, as she did when she was the little girl in the memory. Her analysis of the past is resounding—Alison draws in moments of her life, using captions to show how she came to realize that the people that she loved and listened to, and the place she came from, wasn’t as it appeared to her while she was growing up.
More powerful than the moments she can explain with her adult wisdom are those in which she can’t. These often come during her “middle Alison” years, as a freshman at Oberlin College. As she navigates her newfound relationship with her classmate Joan (Desiré Graham) Alison decides to come out to her parents. Their reactions, or lack thereof, confuse Alison, until her mother tells her that her father spent their entire marriage having affairs with men.
The complexity of the show comes out here: The audience has seen Alison’s father through the eyes of adult Alison for the entire runtime. Everyone knows what’s about to happen, but still braces for medium Alison’s realization. The seven-piece orchestra hints at Alison’s emotions: The strings pluck for humor, or a bow is used on the string instruments for drama. While the power of Fun Home certainly comes from the script and the actors’ performances, the music and song add a layer of complexity that you just can’t always expect from a musical.
Even a tune as simple as “Telephone Wire,” which repeats the same words about watching a telephone wire from a car, takes us to the show’s climax as medium Alison, played by adult Alison in this scene, struggles to speak up to her dad about the tension they’ve felt since she came out to him. This scene in Bruce’s car is emblematic of the lifelong struggle between Alison and her father to speak about things of importance, something that only seemed to have a brief reprieve in the early college days before Alison told him about her relationship with Joan.
Fun Home layers these moments of consequence with lighter flashbacks to Alison’s childhood, as she and her brothers, Christian (Cameron Levesque) and John (Luke Gold), play in their family’s funeral home, which they of course call the “Fun Home.” Gold, Levesque, and Simeqi give stand-out performances, singing and dancing with a confidence and comfort that you don’t always see even in adult performers. Sarah Crane’s choreography allows them to dance in a way that looks put together without any hint of it being rehearsed, as it keeps within the natural boundaries of what kids will do.
Fun Home is successful because it’s believable—it shows the dynamics of a family without becoming so specific that it loses its relatability, while still keeping the individuality of the Bechdels’ home. Her realizations are poignant and complex, but Bechdel’s voice can be heard clearly. Anyone who has learned something they wished they hadn’t, fallen in love, gone to college, or had a family will be able to find something about this show that hits home.
Featured Image by Nile Scott