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Coming of age and coming out – ‘Fun Home’

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Coming of age and coming out – ‘Fun Home’ (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2019)

BANGOR – A musical tale of coming of age and coming out, a story of family and fate, is showing at the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre is presenting “Fun Home,” a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. The show runs through May 12.

Directed by Tricia A. Hobbs with musical direction by David John Madore, it’s the story of Bechdel herself, looking at her personal journey of gender identity through the lens of her past while also coming to terms with some of her family’s secrets. This is a challenging and thought-provoking piece, asking questions about self and selfishness and what it means to sacrifice. It is about choices – both those we make and those that the universe makes for us. It is about love and connection and secrets. It is about sexuality and discovery.

And it is one of the most emotionally impactful productions to grace this stage in a very long time.

Alison (Susannah McLeod) is a cartoonist trying to use her gift to reconnect with her younger days. Her efforts to accurately recreate years gone by lead her to venture backward in memory to explore those seminal moments of her past that helped mold her into the person she has become; her two primary touchstones are her small-town Pennsylvania childhood in the 1970s and her early college career at Oberlin in the 1980s.

Small Alison (Evelyn LaCroix) lives with her family in Beech Creek, PA, in a house that doubles as a funeral home. Her father Bruce (Dominick Varney) is a funeral director, high school English teacher and architectural restoration enthusiast; her mother Helen (Megan Marod) is a stay-at-home mom and talented amateur actress. Alison also has two brothers – Christian (Cuthbert Steadman) and John (Luka Bogolyubov). Her relationship with her dad is affectionate, albeit distant; the two engage on more of an intellectual level.

That relationship doesn’t change much as Medium Alison (Lana Sabbagh) heads off to Oberlin College to continue her academic career. She has frequent conversations with her dad that never go much beyond what books she’s reading, but as we see, her journey of self-understanding is leading her down some unexpected paths. Her new friend Joan (Emma Howard), for instance, helps Alison uncover the person that was there all along.

We jump back and forth in time as Alison undertakes this project, seeking to understand the particulars of not only her own being, but also of the life of her dad – up to and including his unfortunate end. We watch as Alison’s various relationships play out throughout the past; she wanders through her own memories, seeking only to render these moments as accurately as possible. These are the moments we witness as she strives for accuracy and clarity even as she lays bare her own vulnerabilities.

“Fun Home” is not a typical musical. The songs are deeply integrated into the narrative; there’s little separation between the two – it’s a touch operatic in that way. The themes are quietly complex and presented with nuance; delicate subjects are handled with grace. The line between comedy and tragedy is extremely blurry … and this show dances upon it, brimming with sad jokes and happy tears. The depth of feeling is truly striking to experience.

This is the second time in the PTC director’s chair for Hobbs – she debuted with last fall’s “Wait Until Dark” – and she’s even better this time around. She has a magnificent eye for stage pictures – likely a byproduct of her scenic design experience – and this show lends itself well to that kind of visual acuity. There’s a clear, clean aesthetic sense to her choices; she’s a gifted storyteller made all the better by a clear investment in the story being told.

The three Alisons link together as the show’s emotional center, the fulcrum upon which everything else must pivot. It’s a remarkably talented trio. McLeod is a master of ceremonies of sorts, directing the action with a light touch and palpable determination. There’s a buoyancy there, a command of the stage that inspires an immediate (and necessary) empathy. Sabbagh endows Medium Alison with all of the crackling energy that comes with youthful self-redefinition; she’s awkward in all the right ways, charming and confused and altogether endearing. And LaCroix is absolutely adorable as Small Alison, bringing a child’s sense of wonder to the proceedings and perfectly capturing the struggle that comes from both deeply wanting a parent’s attention and somewhat fearing it as well. Each performance elevates the others – this rising tide definitely raises all boats.

Varney is infuriating and heartbreaking as Bruce, a man desperate to maintain a sense of staid stolidity. His arm’s-length emotional distance is frustrating and his uptight, upright veneer is glossily unsettling; when cracks arise, we catch glimpses of the fear and anger bottled up within him. The character of Bruce is worn down by a lifetime of playing a role for which he is ill-suited; the role of Bruce is one for which Varney’s talents are eminently qualified.

The rest of the ensemble is no less impactful. Marod plays Helen with a brittleness that comes through every gritted-teeth smile, giving the sense of someone who will do anything to maintain her own illusions about her family. Howard’s gently smiling charm brings Joan to life. Steadman and Bogolyubov are wildly energetic and cute as heck. And Cameron Wright does yeoman’s work, playing multiple roles and fleshing out the world of the play.

The music is wonderful – personal highlights include “Come to the Fun Home,” “Ring of Keys,” “Telephone Wire” and “Pony Girl,” though your mileage may vary. Musical director Madore has assembled a great band – Chris Poulin (guitar), Gaylen Smith (bass & mandolin), Tom Libby (drums), Sophia Steadman (violin & viola) and Madore himself on piano. To make music that has a sense of intimacy while still filling a space like the Opera House is no easy feat, though you’d never know it from the efforts of Madore and company.

On the production side, Hobbs does double duty as the show’s scenic designer. The set looms, with towering bookshelves fading toward undefined spaces, blending concrete and abstract elements to maximize visual impact and functionality. Certain delineation comes via projections – also designed by Hobbs – but much of the spatial division is handled by Scout Hough’s lighting design. Hough understands this stage as well as anyone, and thus is able to create distinct spaces through judicious choices; it’s a remarkable display of defining the world via light. Kevin Koski’s costume design is spot-on. It’s always fun when he gets unleashed on a period piece such as this one; he has a lovely knack for evoking an era. Sean McGinley’s sound design handles the space’s notoriously finicky acoustics, while Meredith Perry’s properties design fills in the setting’s remaining gaps.

“Fun Home” might not be a familiar title. And it is far from a conventional musical. Yes, it has some moments of remarkable humor and some beautiful songs. But there’s also plenty of sadness and more than a few challenging moments as well. It is something very different.

As a rule, I’m easily engaged as an audience member. I’m inclined to feel feelings. But I can safely say that it has been a long time since I felt this much at the theater. Go. Just go.

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