‘Fun Home’ at KC Rep: A Time Machine to Letters, Wall Phones and the Closet

Kansas City Repertory Theatre offers a handsomely mounted production of “Fun Home,” the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about growing up in uniquely dysfunctional family in Pennsylvania. The show, adapted by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori  (music) racked up an array of awards in 2014-15, including five Tonys.

While the show lacks the intellectual heft and thematic complexity of Bechdel’s “family tragicomic,” it does adhere to the cartoonist-author’s central theme — a remembrance of her own coming out and her relationship with her closeted gay father. The script evokes a time in the 1960s and ‘70s when a country in transition included young people discovering their sexual identities with pride and an older generation who kept secrets. 

It was also a time when human interaction depended on land lines and writing real letters by hand to communicate, a time of bad TV and ugly clothes. Plaid furniture and pianos crowded living rooms. 

“Fun Home,” like Bechdel’s book, presents her family’s eccentricities and hidden lives matter-of-factly as she tries to make sense of it all, both in the moment and retrospectively. Her mother was a pianist and actress in community theater. Her father was a a high school English teacher who also ran a funeral home out of the family’s gothic revival house he had painstakingly restored. The parents guarded secrets, mainly her father’s predatory behavior, which earned him a court-ordered visit to a psychiatrist.

Kron’s script depicts three stages of Alisons’s life — as an adult cartoonist looking back, played by Lauren Braton; as a college student (Ellen Soraya Nikbakht) figuring out that she, like her father, is gay; and as a curious child (Delilah Rose Pellow) who sees things — cadavers, for instance — that most kids don’t. 

Alison’s dad, Bruce, is a febrile intellectual who reads constantly and devotes himself with maniacal precision to any task at hand — whether restoring antique furniture, demanding that his kids hold the highest standards (even if all they’re doing is playing with crayons and a coloring book) or savoring great literature. 

Bechdel’s memoir is infused with literary and mythological allusions but the show skips over most of that. Bechdel sought in her book to balance an intellectual and emotional understanding of her life and family. The show, like many musicals, keeps it simple and opts for the equivalent of comfort food. 

That choice was most obvious in Alison’s college-age coming-out story. Here the script is at its jokiest, bordering on sitcom humor. Nikbakht gamely embraces the challenge, particularly in “Changing My Major,” a song constructed around an amusing one-liner that wears thin quickly.

For my money the best musical number is “Days and Days,” performed by Mariand Torres as Helen, Alison’s mother. Torres, who played the title role in the Rep’s production of “Evita” in 2016, nails this arresting composition with equal parts delicacy and authority. Her voice is simply stunning.

The youngest cast members — Patrick McGee, Drew Squire and Pellow as the Bechdel siblings — perform with poise and enthusiasm. Pellow, who has the most to do, impresses with her charismatic stage presence. The kids’ big number, “Come to the Fun Home,” is a lively Jackson Five-ish tune. 

Braton, a fine singer and luminous actress whose resume speaks for itself,  occasionally seems a little lost as the older Alison — sometimes tense, sometimes expressive. That may be a reflection of the character’s dilemma as she struggles to both own and understand her family’s complicated history.

Jonathan Raviv, as Bruce (Alison’s dad), is a strong singer in a role that is both under-written and excessively emotional. The memoir’s version of Bruce made more sense. Noah Lindquist tackles a variety of roles, including Roy, the young assistant and baby sitter whose relationship with Bruce is not strictly professional. Allison Jones plays Joan, the college girlfriend, and deftly manages the character’s penchant for wise cracks and sardonic observations.

The scenic design by Regina Garcia is outstanding. She utilizes the Spencer Theatre’s revolving stage to great effect as the show smoothly changes locations while projecting a fluid sense of depth. Barbara Samuels’ inventive lighting design adds to the shows frequent and subtle shifts in tone. Theresa Squire’s costumes evoke the era with cringe-worthy stripes, plaids and crazy combinations of both.

Veteran music director Anthony T. Edwards leads a crack musical ensemble that gives Tesori’s score a good reading. 

Bottom line: The show and Bechdel’s memoir are different creatures. The depth achieved in Bechdel’s impressive autobiographical graphic narrative isn’t matched by the Broadway version. But if the show leads some people to the book, that’s a good thing. Bechdel’s family was unquestionably unique. Yet, many of us have faced the unsettling realization that our parents and siblings remain mysteries to us. 

“Fun Home” runs through Feb. 16 at the Spencer Theatre. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org. 

CategoriesTheater Reviews
Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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