Covid forced me to postpone my trip to Aurora to see Paramount Theatre’s production of Fun Home, the latest production in their new BOLD series, performed across the street in the Copley Theatre. Having finally seen it, I have two things I want to say: (1) Covid is a bitch; and (2) If you have not seen this show, you are missing one of the best musicals of the year.
Jim Corti and Landree Fleming have directed what I feel is possibly a more definitive production of this 2014 Tony Award winning musical than even its Broadway run. This says nothing about the quality of that production and everything about the way Corti and Fleming have done whatever they could to dig into and explore every last nuance of the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel. The book is a powerful one, a deep dive into Bechdel’s past, her acceptance of the fact that she is gay, and her relationship with her English teacher/home renovator/undertaker father Bruce, a closeted gay man whose inability to accept his own homosexuality led to his suicide when she was eighteen.
The way that the musical is structured, with its three Alisons at three different ages, pretty much guarantees that any decent production will find a lot to say about the main character. This one is of course no exception, and the three actors playing the role—Emilie Modaff as adult Alison, Elizabeth Stenholt as medium Alison, and Maya Keane (whom I did not see) and Milla Liss sharing the role of young Alison—are each exceptional in digging into the character. I was especially captivated by Liss’s ability to portray so many hidden and conflicting emotions within the little girl version of the character, one who senses that there is something very different about her but allows herself to
succumb fall victim to her father’s demanding and selfish nature, one that has already broken her mother Helen (Emily Rohm). (It’s interesting that one of the first things her character says to him is “Listen to me,” as he pretty much never has and never does.) Liss’s emotionally complex delivery of “Ring of Keys,” the play’s signature ballad about the moment her eyes were opened not by her father but by the random sighting of a woman in classic butch dress whose short hair, “swagger,” and “just-right clothes” tell the young girl more about herself than her father ever could.
Stenholt is no less enthralling as the college freshman who, away from her father, is finally allowing herself to accept what she discovered that day. After an engaging series of stuttery stops and starts, she finally goes to bed with her newfound girlfriend Joan (an appealing Devon Hayakawa). Stenholt’s wonder-bound performance of “I’m Changing My Major,” sung as Alison contemplates her sleeping girlfriend and what has just happened between them, is brilliant, funny, warm, and alive. It helps to create the important contrast between her and her father, who never seems to accept himself as he is.
It’s left to Modaff, as the 43-year-old cartoonist trying to draw her way into an understanding of who her father (whose suicide was also at age 43) really was, to tie the end of the threads of his life together. Modaff has always been an expressive actor, and really gets the opportunity to shine here. As Alison looks back at her own life, she tries more and more desperately to understand the man who kept himself so hidden from her even as he was helping to shape her life, only to discover in the poignant song “Telephone Wire” that there isn’t enough he ever shared to help her to know him. The pain in Modaff’s face and voice as Alison sits in a car next to her father, trying vainly to uncover something she’s never understood in what she knows to be their last conversation, is palpable: she is looking at something she will never fully be able to understand, and it hurts deeply.
Her father, despite his unwillingness to share anything more than skin-deep about himself, does get a chance to speak here. In what is clearly an Alison-invented monologue designed to make sense of the unfathomable, Bruce—played by Stephen Schellhardt—sings about the broken pieces that have made up his life in a powerful stream of consciousness number tied together by the singular joy he allows himself: the light of the sunset against a parlor wall in a home he is trying to fix up. (Lighting Designer Mac Vaughey makes excellent use here of Scenic Designer Yeaji Kim’s brilliant backdrop: the bird’s-eye view of the Bechdel’s small hometown that young Alison imagines as she flies while playing Superman with her father in one of the few moments in her life in which he actually made real contact with her.)
Schellhardt’s portrayal of Bruce Bechdel is the first time I have ever really felt the depth of that character, who too often remains to the audience as he ends up in Alison’s memory: a confused and broken cipher of a man. His inner pain and self-loathing—he obviously hates himself, but it is never clear whether he hates the gay part or the coverup—too often only manifests in angry outbursts against his wife and children. His directors, however, encourage Schellhardt to open Bechdel’s most vulnerable parts (which is hard when the character is written as Alison knew him: quietly living in his own mind). The darker inner thoughts we see as he sings that final monologue, “Edges of the World,” in which Schellhardt expresses the character’s honest introspection, are only what Alison imagines him to be feeling: the powerful, torn “edges” of a life that went wrong in so many ways. They also may help us to see why Bruce’s final words are “Why am I standing here?” just before he is hit by a truck: maybe even Bruce doesn’t understand why he does what he does.
The rest of this ensemble is pretty much perfect. Rohm’s plaintive “Days and Days,” in which Helen outlines how she managed to stay with her gay, philandering, abusive husband, is so powerful it hurts to listen. At the end, Helen tells medium Alison not to come back home…not because Alison is gay but because she knows the oppressive nature of this town and this house and fears that her daughter will end up living a half-life just like her. Unlike her father, her mother is capable of honestly evaluating her life. Alison’s brothers, played by Jaxon Mitchell and Ezekiel Ruiz, have a lot of fun with their roles, especially in the single best “Come to the Fun Home” I have ever seen. (Choreographer Ariel Etana Triunfo may not have had access to a casket on stage to play off of, but more than makes up for it in energetic dance moves and comic flair.) And Jordan Anthony Arredondo, playing all of Bruce’s young lovers and would-be lovers, finds subtle differences among these boys even though the casting clearly wants us to see them as Helen does: a revolving door of indistinguishable young men and boys.
As to the music, Kori Danielson’s seven-piece band, separated from the action only by a scrim, is as perfect as everything else. This is simply the best Fun Home I have ever seen, and it goes away all too soon, so make the trip; you’ll thank me.