Fun Home – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, Phoenix

After a long development period and a well-received run at New York’s Public Theatre, once the musical drama Fun Home finally opened on Broadway, it was adapted for the more intimate Circle in the Square Theatre. As with all productions where the audience is seated around the action, scenery was suggested, and settings were established with props and artifacts.

Once the national touring production went on the road, the production was reestablished for the more traditional proscenium arch presentations of large auditoriums, just as valley audiences saw it last year at ASU Gammage in Tempe. As a consequence, the intimacy was compromised.

While the excellent touring production remained an effective emotional journey when seen in a massive auditorium, watching Phoenix Theatre’s new production in its considerably smaller black box Hormel Theatre puts the show back to where the piece belongs. Though Hormel is not a theatre-in-the-round, the close proximity audiences have with the performers automatically guarantees a sense of involvement that can’t be experienced in a house that seats thousands rather than hundreds. Phoenix Theatre brings a level of clarity to the production. In order to get a true sense of what Fun Home is aiming for, this is where valley audiences need to see it.

Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name, Fun Home the musical explores the discovery of the artist’s sexuality, the relationship with her parents, particularly her gay father, and tries to come to terms with the events that lead to his death. “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town.” Alison (Becca Ayers) explains. “And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.” And while ordinarily that opening declaration may be viewed as an immediate plot spoiler – it literally states everything that is going to happen – the show explains the hows and explores the whys. With a running time of approximately ninety-five minutes without intermission, it reaches out and grabs your attention without letting go until the final, uplifting fade out.

The clarity in its telling comes with the ability to feel as though you’re right there with the forty-three-year-old Alison as she begins her work, reflecting back on her childhood. We see what she thinks. Unlike the graphic novel which, as a program insert tells us, told its story in a straightforward linear style, the show is a multi-layered exploration that jumps times and settings; it’s a patchwork of events that ultimately builds a picture. And like its Broadway theatre-in-the-round staging, Douglas Clarke’s scenic design creates the need to use imagination. Settings are suggested not so much by a full backdrop, but by props and artifacts. When the characters talk of their home looking like an antique museum, unlike the touring production that gave a full design, the Hormel Theatre production creates the atmosphere through suggestion; it’s considerably more effective, like the theatre-of-the-mind as created by an audio drama. “He appeared to like children,” narrates Alison regarding her father’s often playful nature towards her and her two brothers, “But the real object of his affection was his house.”

As a result of the non-linear approach, we see three different versions of the artist. In addition to the Adult Alison, there’s Young Alison (alternate performances played by either Olivia Feary or Sydney Vance), and as a college student, Medium Alison (Kaitlyn Russell). Often all three share the stage at the same time. And one later point, the Adult Alison even breaks a barrier of time by inserting herself into a scene at a critical moment with her father, Bruce (Rusty Ferracane). Again, because of Hormel’s setting, what may have caused audiences in large auditoriums to question exactly what it was they were watching is here never an issue. The intimate staging of Robert Kolby Harper’s direction is always clear. Despite the jumps, the fantasies, and the cross-over through time boundaries, there’s never a moment when you’re unsure as to where you are in the narrative.

As a musical, there is no grand spectacle to experience, no large ensemble showstoppers; the songs exist to enhance the emotions of the moment; they’re how things feel. When someone talks of how they don’t get musicals and can only accept events when told in a literal manner, the Jeanine Tesori/Lisa Kron score is the example to use when explaining what a musical interlude does. A song expresses an emotion in a way that simply talking about it can never achieve. When Tony leaves the dance at the gym having just met his soul mate Maria, in reality his walk home was probably done in silence. In a musical you hear the soaring emotions he’s feeling within and understand the moment to its fullest extent. In Fun Home, all of the songs are soaring emotions, even the comical, bittersweet fantasy sequence Raincoat of Love where The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family meet to musically reflect the perfect family life of Young Alison’s imagination, and each of the principal characters has their expressions shared.

For Young Alison it’s in the diner with her father when a woman with whom she feels a curious, instant attraction enters, Ring of Keys; for Medium Alison it’s at college after her night with fellow lesbian student Joan (Lauren McKay), Changing My Major (To Joan); for Adult Alison it’s when she’s in the car with her father, Telephone Wire; and for Bruce it’s the questioning moment before the final act of his life, Edges of the World. But best of all it’s the confession Alison’s mother, Helen (Elyse Wolf) sings to her daughter regarding the frustrations of her life with her husband, Days and Days. The heartache she feels of knowing what her husband was doing when he went out in the middle of the night and Wolf’s ability to deliver the song so effectively may tear you apart. “I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me,” she tells her student daughter.

This column has repeatedly expressed its admiration for the direction Phoenix Theatre has gone in the last few years, not only with its choices but with its production standards, further solidifying its reputation for being the city’s leader for regional musical theatre. Like the booklet it published in 2005 celebrating 85 years of productions, in years to come when the theatre looks back with another celebratory book, one that picks up where the last one left off, hindsight should view this present time as its golden period. Fun Home is an example why.

Fun Home continues at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre until December 02

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

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