Review: ‘Fun Home’ is where the heart is

You probably don’t have a ton in common with Alison Bechdel — either the real-life acclaimed lesbian cartoonist or the fictionalized Bechdel of lauded musical “Fun Home” — but you probably have something in common with her.

That makes the latest from Perseverance Theatre extremely affecting to go along with being a fine musical.

“Fun Home” tells the story of 43-year-old Bechdel (Allison Mickelson) mining her life for details while working on a graphic novel memoir. This is done in a series of vignettes in which Big Alison observes formative events from her childhood and first year at college as they unfold for Small Alison (Fiona McFarlin) and Medium Alison (Brita Fagerstrom).

There’s a lot for Bechdel to unpack and consider.

[Let the ‘Fun Home’ begin]

Scenes depict a family shaped by tremendous pressure from demanding and barely-closeted patriarch, Bruce (Enrique Bravo), in one timeline; the awkwardness and euphoria of Bechdel’s first same-sex relationship with college girlfriend, Joan (Cate Ross), in another; and reckoning with the death by suicide of Bruce in the latest timeline. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s also a lively musical punctuated by big laughs.

Most theater-goers probably won’t have experience growing up in small-town Pennsylvania while helping to run the family’s funeral home under intense scrutiny from a father, whose denial of his authentic sexual orientation leads to intense outbursts of externalized self-loathing and frustration as well as a series of affairs.

But most people have probably wondered how extensively the clay of their lives was shaped by the adults of their childhood while looking for an end to the large fingerprints’ swirls. Many will have seen a loved one harm another loved one — intentionally or incidentally — either physically or emotionally, be able to recall the thrill and uncertainty of young love or remember the first time they fully became aware of death.

The finer points are totally singular to Bechdel and her family, but the broader strokes some of the most-universal emotions out there, and the cast of “Fun Home” do an excellent job of making the emotions resonate.

There’s no weak link in the ensemble, and some of the musical’s least-seasoned cast members — children McFarlin, Kyra Wood and Axel Boily — steal the show when given opportunities.

“Come to the Fun Home,” a pastiche of The Jackson 5-era pop, lets the young actors go big, silly and theatrical with their performances that inspired grins under the masks of the Saturday night audience.

The show’s musicians — Gary Busby, Rob Cohen, Paul Cotton, Franz Felkl, Liz Hanley, Dale McFarlin and Ty Wolverton — do great work throughout “Fun Home,” but that song might be their best moment, too. It just wouldn’t work if it didn’t sound like a dead-ringer for early ’70s radio hits complete with swirling strings.

Ben Hohenstatt / Capital City Weekly The Bechdel kids Alison (Fiona McFarlin), Christian Bechdel (Kyra Wood) and John Bechdel (Axel Boily) dance while working on a commercial for their family funeral home during rehearsals for “Fun Home.” Big Alison (Allison Mickelson) takes inspiration for her graphic novel memoir in the background.

Ben Hohenstatt / Capital City Weekly
The Bechdel kids Alison (Fiona McFarlin), Christian Bechdel (Kyra Wood) and John Bechdel (Axel Boily) dance while working on a commercial for their family funeral home during rehearsals for “Fun Home.” Big Alison (Allison Mickelson) takes inspiration for her graphic novel memoir in the background.

“Fun Home” — music by Jeanine Tesori and books and lyrics by Lisa Kron — similarly offers standout moments for any cast member portraying a character with a Bechdel surname.

Bravo gets to make Bruce Bechdel, a person whose tortured legacy casts a shadow over Alison’s life in “Fun Home,” someone to be pitied, feared, resented and — in some areas — admired. It’s a complicated character made real just as much through song as acting, which is impressive.

Margeaux Ljungberg has the generally less-showy role of long-suffering wife, Helen Bechdel, but when she gets a chance to rip off the Band-Aid to show the festering hurt caused by a life of compromise, it’s as jarring as any Bruce outburst.

And the trio of Alison’s — Mickelson, Fagerstrom and McFarlin — are excellent throughout. Whichever Alison is the focus of the action on stage — Mickelson as the relatively grounded observer, Fagerstrom as the bookish, self-righteous and recently smitten college student and McFarland as an indomitable child — feels like the most entertaining Alison to watch. Then, there’s a time jump, a laugh-out-loud song, and a switch in allegiances.

It’s ultimately their work showing the progression of life experiences and the ability to withstand, process and ultimately transcend challenges that make the specifics of Bechdel’s experiences so relatable.

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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