The title of Jeannie Tesori and Lisa Kron’s extraordinary musical Fun Home sounds wrong. Shouldn’t it be Fun House? If a home were just “fun,” with no conflict, it wouldn’t make for good theater.
Maybe it’s a typo? No, can’t be. Fun Home won all manner of awards, including five Tonys. But the title only fits the musical ironically. Bruce Bechdel runs his restored Victorian home at Beech Creek, a small Pennsylvania town, like a boot camp. Since someone’s coming from the historical society to see the renovations, every piece of furniture, every knickknack, must shine. And “any item out of place would start World War III.” Meaning: his wife and three children — OCD enablers all — will catch hell.
Along with holding his family hostage, Bruce is a nonstop workaholic. He teaches high school English, restores rundown houses, and runs the Bechdel Funeral Home, where his children polish walls, floors, and caskets. When father’s away, they depressurize. They call it the “Fun Home” and have a slogan: “We got Kleenex and your choice of psalm. Think of Bechdel when you need to embalm!”
Bruce must be a level 10 narcissist. He’s so image-conscious, he labors day and night to keep it buffed — and to stifle an aching secret. As the musical proceeds, his life becomes so intolerable that he dies in an accident — by chance or choice?
Years later, Bruce’s lesbian daughter Alison needs to know which. She’s 43 and “stuck.” She must solve the paradox about her and her father. They were “equally alike,” she says, and “equally unlike.” When she was young, he steered her in certain directions, and blocked others — demanding she wear a dress, though she preferred pants. When she wanted to be a cartoonist, he went into a rage. That wasn’t classy enough work for his daughter! She became a successful one anyway.
Now she’s making a graphic art book — cartoons and captions — about her father. She will study him from when she was quite young (“Small Alison”), when she went to Oberlin College (“Medium Alison”), and today. Her drawings, and the musical itself, will resemble interlocking the pieces of a picture puzzle.
Jeannine Tesori’s music has the same quality. Instead of lengthy production numbers, most songs are only parts with jagged edges, beginnings that soon fade out. They suggest deeper feelings but leave much unsaid.
In fact, at first, Fun Home feels shallow. It skips back and forth in time and parses out bits of conflicting information, as if unsure where it’s headed. Where’s the boffo show stopper? Why won’t it ingratiate itself the way so many others do? What is this, a rough draft?
Sean Fanning’s set for the San Diego Rep’s production contrasts with the gradual focus. It begins with what resembles a gazebo. Skinny white pillars support a roof far too heavy for them to sustain (like the family’s burden?). Then David Lee Cuthbert’s lights dim. After almost no interval, numerous props and furnishings have rolled in — whole rooms of chairs, desks, flowers — seemingly from nowhere. We take swift set changes for granted these days. But the speed, choreography, and incredible detail make Fanning’s stand out: like watching a puzzle solved in a heartbeat.
And every detail, except one, is in perfect position. Bruce enters and finds a small, cone-like, cream-colored statue out of place. So he moves it less than a quarter inch, stands back, looks satisfied, and begins the scene.
The three Alisons are also parts of a whole. Young Taylor Coleman plays Small Alison. In an early scene, she flies like a plane in her father’s arms. They were giddy then. Here as elsewhere, the everyday image of a soaring child accumulates deeper resonances as the musical proceeds.
Fun Home does have show-stoppers, but they come unexpectedly. Coleman sings “Ring of Keys,” about Small Alison’s first sexual stirrings at the sight of an appealing woman, and threatens to bring the house down. She and Claire Adams, as Medium Alison, are so stage-savvy, one wonders where director Sam Woodhouse found them.
Medium Alison’s at Oberlin College when her sexual puzzle takes shape. She realizes she has strong feelings for Joan, a confident lesbian, and Adams explodes with “I’m Changing My Major to Joan” (with a minor in “kissing Joan”). The song could qualify as a comic coming out. Adams sings with fearless assertion and a gleam in her eye.
It’s probably best not to talk about “Come to the Fun Home,” the children’s commercial for the funeral home, except to say that, under Javier Velasco’s choreography, it may be one of the Rep’s funniest production numbers ever.
Bets Malone plays Helen, Bruce's long-suffering wife, who has kept her husband’s flings with young men a secret. When Malone sings “Days and Days,” her distinctive voice releases decades of anguish.
Amanda Naughton and new face Jim Stanek are well cast as Alison and Bruce. Naughton moves through scenes like a concerned spirit, detached but not withdrawn, wanting to know, unafraid to find out; while Stanek amazes with bipolar emotional leaps and fear that percolates into terror.
Fun Home, music by Jeannie Tesori, book and lyrics, Lisa Kron, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir.
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Amanda Naughton, Taylor Coleman, Jim Stanek, Claire Adams, Bets Malone, Luke Renner, Bobby Chu, Jacob Farry, Conlan Ledwith; scenic design, Sean Fanning, costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings, lighting and projections, David Lee Cuthbert, sound, Matt Lascault-Wood, hair and wig designs, Peter Herman.
Playing through September 30; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m.