Staging musical theater productions can be a big challenge for most any company. Compared to a play with three or four actors, musicals require more moving parts, personnel and demands. So it’s worth pointing out that every time Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati undertakes a musical, the company has to go above and beyond its other productions. It’s also worth noting that ETC has a pretty spectacular record: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Grey Gardens, Next to Normal and Violet, to name a few. Add Fun Home to that list, which opens the company’s 2019-2020 season.
It’s not your predictable love story kind of show. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic tragicomic memoir, Fun Home was a surprise hit on Broadway in 2015, winning five Tony Awards, including best musical. ETC’s D. Lynn Meyers writes in her director’s notes, “It’s possible to say I have been in rehearsal for Fun Home for four years.” She began considering Fun Home with Scot Woolley, her longtime friend and music director. They were eager to present the show's powerful message of inclusion and understanding. Woolley passed away unexpectedly last year, but the momentum and passion of their conversation is evident in this production.
In his first outing at ETC, music director Steve Goers — who has worked for many other theaters across Greater Cincinnati — sustains the quality and commitment that was Woolley’s hallmark. Meyers has assembled a cast of truly talented performers for this thoughtful, wry, sad and joyous show. Bechdel’s memoir, on which the show is based, is a memory piece exploring coming out as a lesbian as a young woman and learning that her father was a deeply closeted gay man. Bechdel’s father apparently died by suicide not long after she shared her own sexuality with her family.
Bechdel is portrayed by three actresses: Natalie Bird is adult Alison, functioning as a narrator who steps in and out of the action as she works at her drawing table, recalling moments in her life. McKenna James Farmer, an astonishingly confident 9-year-old, plays “Small Alison.” And Emily Fink portrays college-aged “Medium Alison,” who, once she acknowledges her orientation, is swept away by her romance with Joan (Jude Walker). Bird often reads over the shoulder of Alison’s younger selves as they record their thoughts and emotions in diaries. These three — each an excellent singer and a compelling actor — give multi-faceted performances that add up to a complex character who grapples with understanding her father, Bruce. She implores, “Am I just like you?”
Charlie Clark, once a regular performer on Cincinnati stages and now working across the Midwest, plays Bruce Bechdel, a man who spins obsessively from historical preservationist to high school English teacher to funeral home operator. We also see his hidden yearnings to connect with young men, a source of both satisfaction and shame. (There is no overt onstage portrayal of his “dalliances,” just hints and repercussions.)
“Fun Home” is the abbreviated name Small Alison and her brothers, John (Henry Weghorst) and Christian (Espen Wells-Jordan), apply to the Bechdel funeral business. The show includes a hilarious number in which the kids create a jaunty TV commercial, “Come to the Fun Home,” complete with zany choreography by Patti James.
Sara Mackie, an ETC regular, plays Alison’s mother, Helen, who suffers mostly silently from her husband’s closeted indiscretions. She escapes by playing the piano (Mackie actually plays). Her performance of the heartbreaking “Days and Days,” in which Helen breaks down and recounts the compromises her marriage has forced upon her, is especially memorable.
Brian c. Mehring’s scenic and lighting design is, as always, spot-on, including the antique-laden, fussy “house on Maple Avenue.” A turntable at stage left quickly delivers Helen’s piano, coffins from the funeral home, and Alison’s college dorm room. The show is performed in 100 minutes, without intermission. On keyboard, Goers conducts five other musicians; they play from a space above the stage in plain view. The melodious, haunting score — especially the plaintive reed and cello refrains as Alison gropes for “captions” for her recollections — is evocative.
Meyers’ direction ensures that this delicate, moving story is told with sensitivity and insight. Opening night was completely sold out. I suspect tickets will go quickly. Get yours as soon as possible: Fun Home is not to be missed.
Fun Home, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Sept. 28. Tickets/more info: ensemblecincinnati.org.