Review: Encore's moving 'Fun Home' packs an emotional punch
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
Deeply moving and tragically poetic, “Fun Home” - now playing at The Encore Musical Theatre Company - is a musical with a fair amount of heartache fueling its narrative.
Predominantly taking place at the Bechdel funeral home in small-town Pennsylvania, the proprietor, Bruce Bechdel, tells a patron that he has “removed all signs of trauma;" an indication of how well off the dearly departed were in his hands.
Yet the same can’t be said for the Bechdel family themselves, especially for main character Alison, who is in a constant tug of war with her past and coming to terms with the man who raised her. This is the crux of “Fun Home,” a beautiful little musical that speaks volumes to one family's livelihood, torn apart by secrets and a journey of self discovery.
In the musical, Bruce wasn’t always busy at the Fun Home (a cute nickname the children had for the mortuary) or teaching high-school English, but rather he was having love affairs with men and teenage boys. Topics hard to swallow in Jeanini Tesori and Lisa Kron’s effective 90 minute production.
Kron’s book sheds light on Bruce’s complicated relationship with Alison, who is portrayed at various stages in her life: as a child (Jojo Engelbert), in college (Grace Allyn), and finally in the present day as a 43-year-old cartoonist/author (Sarah B. Stevens) narrating and literally drawing on her past.
Based on Alison Bechdel’s inspiring graphic novel, The Encore Musical Theatre Company along with this extremely talented and close knit ensemble have put together something incredibly special. Music director Tyler Driskill and his steady crew of polished musicians deliver on the tunes which fall on the side of tear jerking (“Edges of the World”) to downright catchy and infectious (“Come to the Fun Home”).
Though some of The Encore’s acoustics seemed out of balance at the top of the show (mixed in with a low energy opener) - director Vince J. Cardinal’s production gels into a smooth rhythm held together by Sarah B. Stevens delivering one of her best performances to date. Generally playing characters that are busty and larger than life (think Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeny Todd”) the calm and collected demeanor of Alison is a welcome role for the Encore staple, as it allows her to showcase those beautiful vocals and uniquely crafted characterization.
She’s equally matched by Daniel C. Cooney, carrying some heavy emotional burdens as the gruntled father-figure Bruce, who's desperately trying to hide his infidelities, while attempting to salvage a failing marriage to loving wife Helen (Laura Austin displaying an excellent study of why not to keep your emotions bottled up later in the performance). Throughout the show, we see how Bruce interacts with the family, his young sons (Emmanuel Morgan and Gavin Cooney - both delightful), and an assortment of young men who caught his eye over the years (all convincingly played by Tyler J. Messinger).
However, most importantly, we see Bruce interacting with the younger versions of Alison, superbly embodied as a child by Engelbert and as a shy Oberlin college student by the wonderfully awkward Allyn. (Monica Spencer is pretty impeccable as Alison’s first girlfriend too, which provides the impotence to the hilariously heartwarming song “Changing my Major”). But in Bruce's own obsessive and controlling way, he strives to make everything perfect, including the image and ideals of Alison who, from a young age, already doesn’t want to adhere to gender stereotypes (i.e instead of wearing a dress to a local party, she would be more comfortable in jeans).
Alison recants these memories while simultaneously creating a work of art around them, and when her father is fatally struck by a car, the circumstance of which would suggest suicide, she’s forced to revisit her past whether she likes it or not. And to help cope with that, scenic designer Sarah Tanner creates an eye-catching visual aesthetic, combining all the traits of a rural lifestyle mixed with an old-fashioned mansion that suits The Encore stage well (and the visible presence of the orchestra off to the side of the stage further helps interweave the music into the drama). Finally, Sharon Urick’s pristine costuming only intensifies under Robert Perry’s defined lighting plot that helps solidify the tension and focus between transitions.
In other words, The Encore’s “Fun Home” represents a delicate and nuanced production that pushes the envelope in terms of content - this is a proud LGBTQ musical - and also happens to be one of the finer achievements in musical theatre. If you ever felt the need to label a show as a “must see” - I’d say the production of “Fun Home” in Dexter fits the bill.
Oh, and don’t forget to bring the tissues.
IF YOU GO:
Fun Home continues through October 13th at The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI, to purchase tickets and to see showtimes please click here