Every now and then, the perfect show comes at the perfect moment. The stunning production of “Fun Home” currently at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo is that rare case.
An exquisitely crafted musical that tells a powerful coming-of-age story equal parts poignant and heart breaking, as well as devastatingly beautiful and laugh-out-loud funny, this “Fun Home” emerges with an extraordinary cast and inventive design, all under the exceptional direction of Kathy Mulay.
Based on Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir, and adapted by (Kalamazoo College graduate) Lisa Kron with music by Jeanine Tesori, “Fun Home” opened on Broadway in 2013, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score. Also notable (and rather shocking): it’s the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist.
That protagonist is Bechdel herself as she pens her graphic memoir, remembering and reliving the highlights of her childhood and adolescence, which includes her coming out to her small-town Pennsylvania family. Portrayed by three actresses — the adult writer, the child and the college student — Bechdel’s coming of age is unique in that she grew up in a funeral home and it coincides with the revelation that her father, too, is gay, and that his closeted existence has had devastating effects.
The devastation becomes real through universally marvelous performances here. Michele Maika Berg is the adult Bechdel who witnesses and reflects on her memories as they play out; Megan O’Callighan is the college-age Bechdel coming to understand herself and the magnificent possibilities in unapologetically accepting herself (and she also plays beautifully with Emma Wineman as her plucky first girlfriend); and Carly Koch is the child Bechdel, replaying moments with a subtle self-reflexive awareness that they will be remembered as fodder for an older, wiser self who needs desperately to make sense of her life.
Each actress breathes life into these archetypal ages in such a way that we who witness them can see ourselves in them. These parts are written and performed as such so they clearly are ultimately the same human, same life. It’s a marvel, thanks to brilliant writing, even-handed direction, and glorious performances.
Denene Mulay Koch and Tony Humrichouser also give tremendous performances as Bechdel’s parents, wonderfully complex characters who are loving, flawed, tormented, delightful. Humrichouser captures Bruce as the doting father who suffers from his own demons that psychologically terrorize everyone in his path. Koch, always a gorgeous singer who expresses emotion powerfully through song, uses that gift here to full effect and also gives a breakthrough acting performance as the mother, Helen, neglected and spent from doing right by everyone but herself. She will move all but the coldest of hearts, particularly with her gripping “Days and Days.”
The story is so powerful, it’s possible to overlook just how crucial the music is to the magnificent storytelling that expresses (and elicits) such complexity of emotion. Music Director Cole P. Abod is to be commended for what he does with the score as well as his talented seven-piece orchestra.
The design, too, plays a remarkable role in the storytelling. Lee Buckholz’s tremendous set, with an upstage platform from which Bechdel the narrator perches, witnesses, writes/draws, and remembers is complemented by the downstage set where the memories play out. A turntable floor allows for seamless set changes and movement within scenes while also representing the circularity of memory. Laura Cornish’s lights also highlight mood and symbolically show the murkiness of memory.
As a memory play that’s a graphic memoir sprung to life through music, “Fun Home” is a feat — and one that shows just how powerful storytelling can be in adaptation, collaboration, and as a mash-up of art forms. And to have such a stellar team of actors, designers, and a director so clearly in command is a gift. That it opened on Pride weekend just makes it all the more generous and well-received.
Farmers Alley Theatre