Before Hamilton, there was…
The musical version of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by playwright Lisa Kron arrived on Broadway almost literally in Hamilton’s shadow. Both had tried out at New York’s Public Theatre, to positive reviews. Fun Home opened on Broadway on April 19, 2015, just in time for the 2015 Tony Awards,® where it won five, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score Written for the Theatre. Hamilton waited to open on Broadway until August 6, 2015, and it would go on to dominate the 2016 Tony Awards.®
In some ways Fun Home and Hamilton are not at all alike, and yet they both broke new ground in musical theatre. Fun Home is smaller in scale: it doesn’t have an ensemble, and it focuses on interactions among one family (there’s only two “outsiders” in the cast, a young woman (Alexis Louise Young) named Joan, and a young man (Conlan Lediwth) who plays several males in the town where the story is set). Its main characters (three versions of Alison and Bruce, her father) are either lesbian or gay. Fun Home is a 95-minute, no intermission, hothouse of remembered and enacted family life, accompanied by a seven-piece chamber ensemble.
San Diego Repertory Theatre has produced work by Ms. Kron (In the Wake) and by Ms. Tesori (Violet), and going in, there’s the feeling that the Rep and Fun Home should be an excellent match. That feeling was confirmed on opening night.
Rep Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse has assembled a fine company of actors and a top creative team. Sean Fanning’s scenic design, featuring the outline of the house where the family lives, provides the sort of transparency that can be built upon with the addition of wheeled-on furniture. Lighting and projection designs by David Lee Cuthbert effectively delineate areas of light and darkness, in keeping with the lightness and darkness of the plot. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costume design features differing versions of the same identifying outfit for each of the three Alisons. Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design deftly keeps the interplay between Musical Director Robert Meffe’s hidden instrumental ensemble and the onstage voices finely attuned.
Ms. Kron’s book begins with the adult Alison (Amanda Naughton) telling the audience exactly what will happen in the next minutes, so the challenge for both director and cast is to keep the audience interested in how the story develops, despite knowing its outcome. Fortunately, there’s Ms. Tesori and Ms. Kron’s songs, which serve as effective hooks for audience attention.
And, there’s the Alisons: a 12-year-old Small Alison (Taylor Coleman and Isabella Pruter alternate), and a college-aged Medium Alison (Claire Adams, whose performance utterly inhabits her character), besides Ms. Naughton’s adult narrator. The other family members also receive both plot and musical attention: Jim Stanek as Bruce, Bets Malone as Helen, the mother, Christian, the older brother (Luke Renner and Hayden Crocker alternate), and John, the younger brother (Bobby Chiu and Jacob Ferry alternate).
The plot mostly revolves around Alison, how as a small girl she has a sexual awakening (to “Ring of Keys,” the most well-known song), how she “comes out” in college (to “Changing My Major,” a delight in Ms. Adams’ hands), and how she confronts both of her parents’ reactions to the coming-out letter she writes them.
Mr. Woodhouse’s direction rightly keeps the focus on the various versions of Alison, and the rest of the family can fade into the background (the two boys, for example, are featured mostly in Javier Velasco’s choreography). Ms. Malone’s mother is also in the background until she emerges to react to having both a gay daughter and a gay husband. Mr. Stanek’s Bruce is more in the foreground, and his somewhat mysterious relationship with the rest of the family motivates Alison to investigate, ultimately, with tragic results.
Both Fun Home and Hamilton teach us about the country in which we live, in humorous and tragic ways. Fun Home does so on a small scale: Hamilton’s scale is far larger. We probably won’t see a regional production of Hamilton for some time, but we can celebrate that the Rep’s Fun Home brings us both similar lessons and distinct pleasures.