Despite being a five-time, Tony Award-winning best musical, “Fun Home” was a new one for me. It is playing through Sept. 18 at Paramount’s Copley Theatre in downtown Aurora as part of its BOLD Series. The first mainstream musical on Broadway to feature a young lesbian protagonist, it was also the first show to win best score with creators who were both women, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori.
“Fun Home” also was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and is based on the life and graphic novels of Alison Bechdel. Involving an intense topic, the seamless, 105-minute production is co-directed by Paramount favorite and Artistic Director Jim Corti and Landree Fleming, and alternates between chuckles and tears as the story of cartoonist Alison painfully and honestly traces the origin of her father’s death along with the memories of their family life to the present in a series of musical vignettes.
The vivid cast of 10 will keep you spellbound in this heartfelt musical memoir. Emilie Modaff as 43-year-old Alison may spend much of the time behind the drawing board, but when Modaff sings, especially in the duet “Telephone Wire,” or wittily pieces together readings from Alison’s journal, you will understand the magical talents of this performer. I never doubted for an instant that Modaff wasn’t involved in reliving the Bechdel family memories, and the delivery of the line “my beginning was your end” was particularly emotive.
Elizabeth Stenholt is an outstanding Medium Alison, or, more accurately, the Alison at Oberlin College who discovers her many artistic talents, and awkwardly experiences (at least initially) her first love. Stenholt is a tremendously powerful singer and expressive nonverbal communicator.
Milla Liss as Small Alison (a rotating role also played by Maya Keane), alternating between innocence, curiosity, precociousness and brattiness, clearly adores and is confused by her father. Despite her youth, Liss is a knowing and fire brand singer; she delivers “Ring of Keys” with magnificent gusto.
All three portrayals are quite credible and exceptional answers to my expectations of Alison’s life, past and present.
Stephen Schellhardt as Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel, brilliantly portrays him as the expert, the intellectual, the man whose pride in the restored Victorian house meant “one volume out of place would start the Third World War.” He also happens to be the owner and director of the family’s funeral home (“fun home”), a well-respected English teacher, and closeted gay at a time when society did not and could not accept a gay family man who truly loved his children. Schellhardt is perfect; he conveys the torment of his life – all the elation and pain, and the charms of his up-and-down obsessive personality. Schellhardt also serves as the production’s dance captain and intimacy captain.
Emily Rohm is superb as Helen, the mother, initially balanced and serene, but somewhat distant. All her years of pent-up anger, frustration and bitter regret pour out in her gut-wrenching solo “Days and Days.”
Equally significant to the production’s development are supportive cast members who aid in the Bechdel family’s rearrangement and realignment of life. Devon Hayakawa is a marvelous Joan; she’s confident, independent, compassionate, and the kind of person you’d like as a friend at your side. Jordan Anthony Arredondo plays a multitude of young men: Roy, Mark, Pete and Bobby Jeremy, and succeeds quite well as he adds a different touch to each character. Jaxon Mitchell as Christian, and Ezekiel Ruiz as John are Ali’s spirited and delightful young brothers.
There is no intermission, and all the scenes flow into each other seamlessly as the cast adds and subtracts the set pieces designed by Yeaji Kim and Jesse Gaffney. The 12 songs develop the characters and provide much of the plot. Although you won’t go home humming any of them, there are some stunners, especially the ensemble’s Partridge Family-style “Raincoat of Love,” and the reprise of “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue.” A live band masked behind a scrim is onstage, conducted by the talented Kory Danielson.
“Fun Home” is done with much candid sensitivity, creativity and humor. Although dialogue may be sparse, the musical does contain adult language and concepts, as it relays the themes of gender identity, societal expectations, and coming-of-age. “Fun Home” is the third in the Paramount’s BOLD Series, and, once again, more than lives up to its daring, life-affirming mission.
• Regina Belt-Daniels never strays too far away from the sound of applause, whether onstage, backstage, on film, or in the audience. A performer since the first grade, she currently is directing “I Hate Hamlet” for the Elgin Theatre Company, and serves on the theater boards of RCLPC and It’s Showtime.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Fun Home”
WHERE: Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, across from Paramount
WHEN: Wednesday through Sunday until Sept. 18
COST: $67 to $74