Farmers Alley hits perfection with ‘Fun Home’
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–When it comes to structure, composition, and precision, there are few musicals as perfect as Fun Home.
But it is its heart, not its intellectual and technical achievement, that makes this musical a thing of surpassing beauty.
Farmers Alley welcomes Pride Month with its production of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home, the biographical story of Alison Bechdel, a lesbian cartoonist with a closeted father. The “fun home” is the name the family gives to their business next door—the town’s funeral home.
From the first note to the final one, Fun Home uses all its resources to tell a heart-wrenching story of a family whose members are trying to find themselves. Like most families, there is humor, anger, secrets, stories, betrayal, and a lot of love–though the love is often expressed in the most restrained of ways.
Directed by Kathy Mulay, the 90-minute show moves quickly from scene to scene with no intermission. Mulay showed a deep understanding of the script and all its many layers by the way she moves her actors through time and space. She knows just how to have the characters observe each other, especially the eldest of the three Alisons who narrates the story and looks back upon her past in an attempt to understand her present. Mulay knows when to keep her physically aloof and when to draw her right into the action and sit her down with her past.
The three actors playing Alison at three ages completely sell the idea that they were the same person. Michele Maika Berg plays the 43-year-old narrator, while Megan O’Callaghan plays “Medium Alison,”–the freshman in college–and Carly Koch played “Small Alison,” the 10-year-old child who had an uneasy relationship with her father.
While the three have physical commonalities, it is their mannerisms and personalities that made them feel like the same person at different ages. All three have a hunger to understand—both themselves and their family.
Berg is inquisitive and intelligent, tackling the role of Alison with all the desperate hunger of a woman whose past still haunts her. Her character wants to understand, and she brings the audience into her story, balancing wry humor with intense demands for answers. She puts a framework on what her younger selves are experiencing, trying to interpret them from the perspective of age and distance. She is an intense listener. She never leaves the stage and is always deeply into the scene, even when she is off in a corner or in the dark.
Koch takes on an emotional and difficult role for a 7th grader and pulls it off with sensitivity. She has a strong, clear voice and the energy to command the stage. When it comes to “Ring of Keys,” which has become an anthem for many lesbians, Koch nails it, belting it out with moxie while also lowering her voice and demeanor for the very soft “do you feel my heart saying hi?”
As a somewhat nerdy, book-loving freshman who thinks she is going to spend her college years reading, O’Callaghan brings charm to Medium Allison and authenticity to her awakening and self-discovery. She captures that first flush of a sexual experience, of falling in love, and the way it forever changes a person, and she does it with a familiar appeal.
Tony Humrichouser has one of the more difficult roles as Bruce Bechdel, the closeted father who struggles with his identity and tries to fulfill his sexual desires while hiding them from the world. Bruce is a troubled character, one who likely also struggles with mental illnesses either from his suppressed life or in addition to them. His parenting choices leave much to be desired. He is verbally abusive to his wife, and he preys on young men.
Yet, he is not a villain. Fun Home‘s creators made him a complex and layered character, one that it takes an entire musical to dissect and analyze. Humrichouser does a wonderful job portraying Bruce’s frustration and anger, but isn’t always able to find his charm–the tool he continues to use to hold sway over Alison’s life.
Denene Mulay Koch, the director’s daughter and Carly Koch’s mom, played the role of Helen Bechdel, the wife and mother who has lived this double-life for decades. In one of the most powerful musical moments of the performance, Denene Mulay Koch sings “Days and Days” in which she explains how and why she survived this complex marriage. It’s a song that can speak to anyone who has given up on their dreams a little bit at a time, letting them drain away like water in a bathtub.
Lee Buckholz makes brilliant use of the Farmers Alley space, creating a set that was not just functional, but contributed to the metaphors used in the storytelling. He made sure each scene flowed smoothly into the next without hesitation, with set pieces moving automatically in and out and a rotating circle center stage not only moved things on and off quickly, but it fed into the concept of everything taking place in a circle and everything circling in on itself.
Savannah Draper is credited as the scenic designer and thus may have been responsible for the backdrop, a re-creation of Bechdel’s graphic novel, capturing panels from her book that were recreated in the musical. It made a wonderful delineation of adult Alison’s studio that overlooked all that took place below in the home on Maple Avenue, Pennsylvania.
Jody Badalamenti rises to the challenge of finding the antiques that Bruce adored and the many props that were necessary to fill a funeral home, a college dorm, an artist’s studio, and a Victorian restored home. It provides the atmosphere needed to tell this unique story.
Fun Home is a deeply layered show. It’s worth seeing multiple times. On one level it can be simply a moving night of entertainment—wonderfully memorable songs, great acting, upbeat choreography, and a story about memory and families. But it’s also possible to dive deeper into the story, to see the way metaphors play out, to listen for the repeating melodies that inform character epiphanies, to realize that every choice, every note was made with purpose and intention.
It is a moving, emotional show that at the same time is intellectually satisfying.