TheatreWorks’ ‘Fun Home’ is good but never quite gets there

Oct. 20, 2018, 4:06 p.m.

This October at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, TheatreWorks presents the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” based off of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. Directed by Robert Kelley, this production is sound but isn’t perfect — it’s sufficient, but its lack of precision made all the difference.

“Fun Home” is a tough musical to get right — and I will admit that. After seeing the touring production at the Curran nearly two years ago, I actually greatly disliked the musical. I found the subject too nuanced, the story too difficult yet beautiful (hence the “tragicomedy” label placed on the work) to fit the musical genre. On the other hand, I absolutely adored the graphic novel — its perfectly drawn panels, its carefully placed captions.

I was eager to see TheatreWorks’ “Fun Home” in the event that my opinion on the musical would change and in the hopes that it would. It wasn’t the story or the songs that really prevented me from liking it (I regard some of the motifs in the musical as the most haunting that I’ve ever heard, like the recurring syncopated “I want, I want, I want” or “I can see all of Pennsylvania…”), but I could not for the life of me pinpoint what I disliked so much about it. For instance, I was never a “Ring of Keys” diehard, but I found the music alone and the story of the song much more compelling than the combination together. I found “Come to the Fun Home” nearly unbearable to watch and listen to, but I appreciated how it subverts the conventions of big-budget musicals and its narrative function amidst Alison’s childhood.

James Lloyd Reynolds plays a fierce, closeted Bruce Bechdel with unwavering strength, creating a juxtaposition between Helen Bechdel (Crissy Guerrero) that I appreciated, even if that much-needed crisp disconnect between the two never came. It was often hard to understand their words, especially while singing, and sometimes I wished that Helen’s songs had more force behind them — she is the wife of a closeted man secretly having affairs with men behind her back, after all. Erin Kommor shines as medium Alison, a playful duo with Joan (Ayelet Firstenberg), while small Alison (Lila Gold) makes her mark on the production as well, especially on the vocal side. I also wished I got more from Alison (Moira Stone), who narrated the story but never quite clicked into the story as a whole — she felt more like a spectator than someone truly reliving the plot.

“Fun Home” is a tough musical to get right — not just because of its story but because of its complex relationship with its setting and set. The stage requires the creation of a grandiose home in order to complement what we’re seeing and how we’re perceiving small Alison’s world, and TheatreWorks does that well (courtesy of scenic designer Andrea Bechert). However, its use of blank stage space is often confusing, occasionally moving outside of the stage for brief moments even when the stage is nearly completely empty. These moments attempt to find themselves in ambiguous spaces, but they instead revert to a confusing mishmash of temporal and spatial relevance.

I will say that after seeing TheatreWorks’ production, I did, in fact, appreciate the musical more. I wasn’t completely swayed (maybe if I saw a Broadway or touring production again, then I might change my mind), but for me, “Fun Home” required another look at the narrative. After the show, I even went back and read the graphic novel again. The musical sadly did not provide more insight into the graphic novel, but I did finally enjoy the story as a musical.

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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