Theater Review: A Fabulous “Fun Home”

The SpeakEasy Stage company production is intimate and emotionally satisfying, highlighting the musical’s strengths — its sharply witty book, memorable songs, and heartbreaking characters.

Fun Home. Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Music direction by Matthew Stern. Choreography by Sarah Crane. Produced by SpeakEasy Stage company, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through November 24.

The three Alisons: Marissa Simeqi, Amy Jo Jackson, and Ellie van Amerongen, in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of “Fun Home.” Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

By Evelyn Rosenthal

It made perfect sense for self-described lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel—author of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For—to use the form of the graphic novel for her 2006 memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. That critically acclaimed, bestselling book told—and showed—in searing, honest detail the story of Bechdel’s growing up as the daughter of a closeted gay father and distant mother in a small Pennsylvania town.

The crux of the tale is the death—a probable suicide—of Bechdel’s father, Bruce, and how it entwined, in her mind, with acknowledging her own homosexuality a few months before his death. Bechdel’s writing is lyrical, sharply funny, filled with literary allusions and discussions with her father, a high-school English teacher who moonlighted as director of the family-owned funeral home—the “Fun Home” of the title—but whose true love was meticulously restoring their ornate, Gothic-style house. And her drawings brilliantly animate her memories, down to the smallest detail (a box of Crayola crayons; The Rifleman, Yogi Bear, and other TV shows she and her brothers watched, for example).

Translating this rich literary and visual feast into the form of a musical, though, was not so simple. It took six years for composer Jeanine Tesori (Tony-nominated for Caroline, or Change) and first-time musical book/lyric writer Lisa Kron to turn Bechdel’s rich memoir into a musical, but what they came up with rocked Broadway in multiple ways. Fun Home won the 2015 Tony for best musical and best book of a musical, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was the first show to win for best score whose creators were both women. It also was the first show built around a lesbian protagonist.

While this is not Fun Home’s first appearance in Boston (Broadway in Boston brought a touring production here a year ago for a short run), the show’s current incarnation at SpeakEasy Stage is a must-see. Director Paul Daigneault and his team have created an intimate, emotionally satisfying production that highlights the musical’s strengths—its sharply witty book, memorable songs, and heartbreaking characters.

Bechdel structured her book as a series of memories and musings that loop and circle achronologically around the main events, Bruce’s death and her own coming out. Kron’s inspired idea was to bring the author on stage as the 43-year-old Alison in the throes of creating her book, to observe and comment on her younger self—or, rather, selves, as scenes are acted out by two other Alisons, one a 9–10-year-old, and the other a 19-year-old college freshman. But as Kron pointed out in an interview, “grown” Alison doesn’t just observe; she literally “walks through her physical memories, and as they act on her, she changes.” It’s a conceit that both creates tension and raises the stakes for the audience, pulled into Alison’s search for the truth about her family.

Marissa Simeqi and Todd Yard in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of “Fun Home.” Photo by Nile Scott Studios

There are too many delights to this show and this production to mention, but here are a few: the beautiful scenic design by Cristina Todesco, who created a temple of books at one end and set an ornately carved frame (based on an image in Bechdel’s book) above the stage area, reflecting Bruce’s obsession with decor; the exuberant choreography by Sarah Crane that takes full advantage of the adorableness of the three young actors playing Small Alison and her brothers Christian and John; Tesori and Kron’s excellent score, which ranges from pop and folk-rock sounds that evoke the story’s 1970s period to an aching song of ruminative regret in the best Sondheimian mode, all played expertly by the 7-piece on-stage orchestra directed by Matthew Stern.

And then there is the superb cast. Amy Jo Jackson embodies the probing intelligence and yearning of the older Alison, turning over her memories to search out any moment of true connection between herself and her father. Ellie van Amerongen gives the perfect comic edge to Medium Alison’s tentative exploration of her sexuality through books and Gay Union meetings, culminating in “Changing My Major,” a hilarious paean to sex with her first girlfriend, Joan (an appealing Desiré Graham). As Small Alison, Marissa Simeqi projects the child’s-eye view of life in the Bechdel family—the joy of managing to get her father to play “airplane”; the sting of his rejections. Todd Yard ably portrays all the shades of the complex Bruce—a controlling narcissist with anger issues, an intellectual with exquisite aesthetic sensibilities, a family man who secretly had sex with men and high school boys (three of whom are convincingly played by Tyler Simahk). As Bechdel’s mother, Helen, Laura Marie Duncan conveys all the pain and bitter disappointment of a woman whose marriage is a lie. In the biting “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” she enumerates the many things “he wants,” the many accommodations the family makes to keep Bruce’s demons from erupting, as they all pretend nothing is amiss.

Many of the show’s subjects are dark, from suicide and the cruelty of narcissistic parents to Bruce’s MO of getting young, sometimes underage men drunk and seducing them. But what shines brightly throughout is the courage of Alison’s search to understand her past and her family, no matter what memories she uncovers: a “commercial” for the funeral home that she and her brothers create (the hilarious Jackson Five-style number “Come to the Fun Home”); conversations about literature shared with her father; a moment of realizing a mysterious affinity with a butch lesbian restaurant delivery woman (“Ring of Keys,” a Simeqi standout); Helen’s revelations about her marriage and its secrets (the wrenching “Days and Days,” beautifully sung by Duncan).

Though the particulars of Fun Home are, well, particular to the Bechdels, the theme of coming to terms with what we know, don’t know, or can’t know about even our closest family members speaks to us all. And in this marvelous SpeakEasy production, that point couldn’t be more movingly made.

Evelyn Rosenthal is a singer specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, a freelance editor, and the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She writes about musical theater and music for the Arts Fuse.

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