Review: San Diego Rep’s ‘Fun Home’ a poignant, poetic story of coming to terms with family, identity
There’s a moment in the first scene of the musical “Fun Home” where the narrator’s antiques-loving dad gazes at an aged silver teapot and sings in almost rapturous tones: I love how tarnish melts away, opening to luster.
“Fun Home,” which just opened in a moving and beautifully rendered local premiere at San Diego Rep, is likewise concerned with scouring away surfaces to see what lies beneath.
In this case, it’s the decades-old memories of a loving but truth-seeking daughter named Alison that are being dusted off and reappraised.
But while Alison’s aim is less to buff away any tarnish than make peace with (and even come to appreciate) the blemishes and imperfections, this show gradually takes on a hard-won emotional luster nonetheless.
It’s a piece that, in wistful tones laced with a mordant wit, gets at the mysteries of what families bequeath to us, and how our lives can remain unaccountably tethered to those complex legacies.
“Fun Home” is based on the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir about growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, where her parents ran an inherited family funeral home that gives the story its tongue-in-cheek name.
In real life, as in the book and Tony Award-winning 2013 musical, Bechdel’s coming-out to her family as a lesbian during her first year in college coincided with the startling revelation that her father, Bruce, likewise was gay and had spent a lifetime in the closet.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way. We learn early on in the 95-minute, intermissionless show — directed with an assured sense of tone and pacing by Rep artistic chief Sam Woodhouse — about Bruce’s secret life and its fallout on Alison’s mom, Helen.
The story, adapted for the stage by writer-lyricist Lisa Kron, is told as a memory play, with shades of Tennessee Williams’ great “The Glass Menagerie” in the way childhood recollections are questioned and reassessed, and prized possessions come to symbolize broken lives.
We learn what happened through the eyes of the 43-year-old Alison (Amanda Naughton), who hands the story off to younger versions of herself — 19-year-old Medium Alison (Claire Adams) and 10-year-old Small Alison (portrayed on opening night by Taylor Coleman) — over the course of the time-jumping show.
The Broadway-seasoned Naughton, who also appeared on the national tour of “Fun Home,” brings an appealingly wry touch and a potent voice to Alison, and lends heart to Jeanine Tesori’s complex, unconventionally melodic music for the piece.
Jim Stanek, a veteran of the Broadway production, also puts up a committed performance as schoolteacher Bruce, whose love for family competes with his deep need for order, his hidden desires and his often dark moods.
And as Helen, the accomplished pro Bets Malone gets deeply at her character’s bottled-up heartache, finally unleashed in the devastating number “Days and Days.”
That scene is a highlight in a show whose most arresting moments also include Adams’ wonderfully funny turn on “Changing My Major,” an irresistible ode to sexual awakening; “Come to the Fun Home,” the adorable faux “commercial” comically choreographed by Javier Velasco and performed by the Bechdel kids (the talented trio of Bobby Chiu, Luke Renner and Coleman); and the latter’s bring-the-house-down rendition of the signature song “Ring of Keys,” a star-making moment for this remarkable young actor. (She alternates in the role with Isabella Pruter.)
The vibrant Alexis Young, as Alison’s college girlfriend Joan, and versatile Conlan Ledwith, in multiple roles, also bring plenty to the production.
Musical director and conductor-keyboardist Robert Meffe and his six-member orchestra bring out all the idiosyncratic textures of Tesori’s score, which includes a signature nine-note woodwind theme that’s echoed on strings and interspersed through the show.
Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes echo the 1970s and ’80s settings cannily (and are a riot on the Partridge Family-esque “Raincoat of Love”); and Sean Fanning’s inventively evolving, at times dreamlike scenic design fits snugly with the show.
There’s harmony, too, in the poignant finale, which brings the three Alisons together. The way their stories finally coalesce brings a sense that, if the grown-up Alison hasn’t found all the answers, she has at least achieved some resolution.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays. Through Sept. 30.
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Phone: (619) 544-1000
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