Local Arts

Review: Tony-winning “Fun Home” twists sadness and struggle with a journey toward joy

From left, Amanda Ortega, Lisa Hatt and Lisa Schacher star in “Fun Home,” a Tony-winning musical based on the memoirs of Alison Bechdel, who grew up in a Pennsylvania funeral home.
From left, Amanda Ortega, Lisa Hatt and Lisa Schacher star in “Fun Home,” a Tony-winning musical based on the memoirs of Alison Bechdel, who grew up in a Pennsylvania funeral home.

You get the big news quickly in “Fun Home:” Narrator Alison Bechdel grew up in a Pennsylvania funeral home, one of three children to a closeted gay man who died while she was a college student. Unlike him, she accepted her homosexuality and found romantic joy with women and professional satisfaction as a cartoonist and graphic novelist.

Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist-librettist Lisa Kron, who won Tony Awards adapting Bechdel’s 2006 memoir, don’t want us distracted by plot twists. The destination matters less than the double journey: Bruce Bechdel’s descent into a hell of deception and self-loathing, and Alison Bechdel’s rise to happiness and self-awareness. (The story ends with her metaphorically “flying” over Pennsylvania, remembering a childhood game played with her dad.)

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte delivers a version of this compact, compelling musical to rival the 2016 national tour. Dee Blackburn’s simple, nonrealistic set of three fixed panels with movable furniture out front tells us we’re getting an imaginative recreation of Bechdel’s young life, not a literal one.

Director Chip Decker’s production strikes this balance between emotional reality and physical unreality, reminding us we have only the cartoonist’s word that what we’re seeing is “true.” In life, some people thought her father was killed accidentally by a truck; she interpreted his death as suicide, possibly triggered by the revelation that she was happily gay, and we leave with that understanding in the musical.

Decker made two crucial decisions. First, he cast the roles of Small Alison, Medium Alison and Alison Bechdel so they not only act but look somewhat alike. We get a seamless transition from the brash, needy girl (played by Allie Joseph) to the buoyant collegian (Amanda Ortega) to the wryly reflective woman in her 40s (Lisa Hatt).

Second, Rob Addison gives us a Bruce who’s beginning to unravel as soon as we meet him. His petty tyrannies, which will turn into rages later, come from fear that he’ll be exposed as a fraud to the world – or, at least, his children, because long-suffering wife Helen (Lisa Schacher) has already figured him out. His need for well-preserved appearances seems pitiable, not irritating, in this approach and makes Alison’s conclusion that he took his life more credible.

There’s humor, too. Small Alison and her bouncy brothers (Donovan Abeshous and Ryan Campos) create a darkly funny singing commercial for their dad’s business, and Medium Alison’s first sexual experience with college girl Joan (expressed in the exuberant “Changing My Major”) is a highlight.

Though the character of Joan (Sebastian Sowell) remains a saintly sketch, Kron and Tesori give all the other adults numbers that express heartbreak, confusion or jubilation. We leave with sympathy for each, perhaps most of all the tortured Bruce. When this show won the 2015 Tony Award for best musical, people who hadn’t seen it wondered how it displaced the elegant “An American in Paris” and rollicking “Something Rotten.” See it, and you’ll know.

P.S. Early on, the kids plop down in front of an unidentified black-and-white movie on TV: the 1954 “Johnny Guitar,” a psychologically coded western where a woman’s suppressed love for another woman destroys herself and others. You have to admire such unobtrusive attention to details.

“Fun Home”

WHEN: Through June 29 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Queens University’s Hadley Theater, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes without intermission.

TICKETS: $30-$50. Discounts for students, teachers, military, Queens University community.

DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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