From Nov. 4-6, Lyric Theatre @Illinois offered a staging of “Fun Home,” a musical about a young lesbian woman’s relationship with her eccentric family, and in particular with her closeted gay father, who ended his life in suicide.
The genesis of this musical is somewhat complicated. In 2006, Alison Bechdel, a lesbian, published a graphic novel about her own development in relation to the world she came out of. Around 2009, lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori started a project to make a musical from the graphic novel, an effort that ended with a Broadway opening in 2015.
“Fun Home” was an enormous critical and public success and ran from March 2015 to September 2016, and this was followed by national and international tours.
Given its subject matter, one might expect something, if not grim, then at least serious in tone. Yes, this work does deal with serious matters, but it brims with inventive vitality.
Watching the first three quarters of it gave me enormous pleasure. Bechdel is a brilliant graphic artist, and the stage design by José Diaz-Soto made the most of the opportunity to use vivid cartoon images.
The Bechdel household verges on the chaotic, but the musical numbers come across with disciplined impact. All in all, this is one of the best all-around productions I have seen in the Tryon Festival Theatre for many years.
For the sparkling effect of Jeanine Tesori’s music, we had musical director Julie Jordan Gunn and the pit musicians to thank, and for the dramatic impact of the first-rate cast, we can thank stage director Sarah Wigley.
In the plot, adult Alison looks back upon her life when she was a child and as an adolescent. Three actresses played Alison, who was vividly performed by Zoe Harms as young Alison, Lucy Economos as teen Alison and Emma Mize as adult Alison. All three deserve the highest praise.
Helen, the mother, who tries to be the adult in the room, was played with prim determination by Sarah Durbin. The “Lord of Misrule” in the home is Bruce, the father, an English teacher and funeral home director, and a beginner of various never-completed projects.
Danny Yoerges played this juicy role with virtuoso vitality, and when the plot turns to tragic, his acting evoked searing pathos. When the tragic climax of Bruce’s suicide came, the work of lighting designer Megan Coffel, sound designer Dakota Erickson and media designer M. Ospina-López achieved an explosive impact.
Aside from the principal actors, the supporting roles were well played by Madysen Simanonis, Ramman Takhsh, Leyla Aguiar Cohen and Ruth Ionin. The costume design by Colin Grice evoked the decades of the heroine’s youth (1970s and ’80s), and the choreography by Rachel Rizzuto kept the production numbers zinging. Nicholas Pothier conducted the Nov. 6 matinee.
The supertitles varied, from the unmistakably clear to the just passably visible. Despite the internet statement that print program booklets would be available at the theater, they were not at the performance I attended Saturday night.
As a retired English teacher, I especially enjoyed the literary references sprinkled about. Who knew the gift of a novel by the famous French author Colette had a special meaning?
The final scene, in which Alison imaginatively reaches reconciliation with her dead father, had enormous emotive impact. The reaction of the audience was delirious. In Humphrey Bogart’s words in “Casablanca,” it was “a wow finish.”
A production of Wolfgang Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is promised for spring semester 2022.