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As expected, the 2015 Tony-Award-winning musical Fun Home plays ideally in a smaller theater than the typical Broadway stage, as I (and many others) have noted. However, the Arden Theatre Company's fine production, closing its 30th season, benefits from much more than the relative intimacy of the F. Otto Haas Stage.
The 90-minute musical is based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, written by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics). It works splendidly at the Arden, due to director Terrence Nolen and designer James Kronzer's decision to stage the musical in the round, as director Sam Gold did when it moved to Broadway from the Public Theater.
The terrific cast, even this early in the run, already seem like they're comfortably and confidently living their roles. Ryan Touhey's assured music direction and leadership of his onstage band and Jorge Cousineau's flawless sound design are also significant factors in Fun Home's success.
Up close and personal
Everyone sits close to Kronzer's white octagonal platform, which suggests Bechdel's blank page. Actors roll white furniture on and off with ease, and the configuration keeps the performers moving. There are no bad seats — and I sat in the last of my section's six rows. Thom Weaver's lighting is exquisitely subtle and rich, and Rosemarie McKelvey's costumes capture the 1960s and ‘70s with insight and wit.
Philadelphia stalwart Mary Tuomanen plays adult Alison, busily writing and drawing her graphic novel while her memories of childhood, her college coming out, and her growing awareness of her father's secrets swirl around her. Often perched at her drawing table, she never leaves the stage, always revealing that the memories conjured in Fun Home profoundly affect her.
Fun Home charts two storylines: Kate Bove plays Small Alison, living happily in the family funeral home with brothers Christian (Charles LaMonaca) and John (Liam David-Kilker). But she’s sensitive to the tension between father Bruce (Ben Dibble) and mother Helen (Kim Carson).
The kids play in a casket and sing a rousing Motown-influenced ad for the family business, "Come to the Fun Home." Robi Hager plays several young men intersecting with the family (and, surreptitiously, with Bruce).
Medium Alison (Izzy Castaldi), an Oberlin College first-year, falls in love with Joan (Jackie Soro), a romantic awakening celebrated in the deliriously happy song "Changing My Major." Medium Alison's coming out spurs revelations about Bruce's sexuality, most eloquently in Helen's song "Days and Days" and Bruce's "Edges of the World."
Dibble's performance marks a profound turn in his career. Long the big-voiced, genial comic lead, Dibble plays his Bruce as a tortured soul struggling to balance life as a teacher and community leader with his secret sexual needs. Often, he vents his frustrations on his family. Like Alison, we face his monstrous failings but love him nevertheless.
Carson's Helen achieves as much with less stage time. She’s slavishly loyal to Bruce and her family, yet deeply hurt. Bechdel focuses on her in a second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. If it's ever a musical, Carson should star.
These powerful moments in song — and many more, like Small Alison's poignant "Ring of Keys," in which she’s fascinated by the sight of a butch lesbian — are part of a skillfully wrought larger story. The trio of Alisons are ultimately united in sorrow, forgiveness, and love. All three make the thrill of self-realization a soaring reality, but also plumb the depths of confusion and heartache when they realize what Bruce's double life has cost their family.
Fun Home's balance of humor and pathos, its gentle yet profound exploration of the generational divide, and its unforgettable characters have made it an unlikely blockbuster, landing it in cavernous venues. The Arden deftly wrangles all this bigness, sharing Alison's story at the right scale.
What, When, Where
Fun Home. Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Terrence J. Nolen directed. Through June 24, 2018, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second Street, Philadelphia. (214) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
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