Delayed over the past two theatrically arid years, multi-Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home finally makes its Melbourne debut, arriving in a superbly cast, sharply directed production that brings the show’s searing emotional heart to throbbing, pulsing life.
Nominated for eleven 2015 Tony Awards and winning five, including Best Musical, one-act chamber musical Fun Home seems an even better fit in a repertory theatre season than on the Broadway stage. Lisa Kron’s book is as strong as that of any play, and the complex characters merit portrayal by strong actors guided by intelligent directors. This production of Fun Home has all that and more, the long delayed season proving very much well worth the wait.
Fun Home hails from the unusual source of a graphic memoir, Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic. Alison Bechdel, known to film analysts for the Bechdel Effect, is seen in three incarnations in the musical: Small Alison, Medium Alison and Alison.
As a 43-year old adult, Alison observes the story unfold on stage as she goes through the process of writing and drawing her memoir. Watching the character and her family at three interwoven time periods is akin to watching television hit This Is Us, the past and present illuminating each other more richly than a simple linear narrative.
In much the same way as Hamilton, the story’s dramatic outcome is stated in the opening number, effectively creating an unsettling tension as the climax approaches. Achieving a relatively high level of emotional honesty, Fun Home contrasts the giddy joy of Alison’s burgeoning lesbianism with the wretched anguish of her father Bruce’s closeted homosexuality.
With masterful insight, director Dean Bryant delivers a gripping, heart rending staging that deserves to be long remembered as a high point for musical theatre not just at MTC but on the wider Melbourne scene. With meticulous attention to nuanced details, Bryant elevates the authentic soul of Kron’s book and lyrics, bringing out searing portrayals from his exceptional ensemble cast.
Prolific and versatile Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori contributes songs that derive from scenes and flow from characters with impeccable naturalism. The drama is relieved with a couple of fabulous fantasy numbers, as the Bechdel kids channel the Jackson Five in “Come to the Fun Home” and the full company sparkle their way through a Partridge Family tribute in “Raincoat of Love.” Cute kitsch choreography from Andrew Hallsworth is the icing on these cupcakes.
Musical Director Mathew Frank, on keyboard, leads six fellow unseen musicians in a tight performance of Tesori’s score. The songs have a Sondheim-like edge of complexity that thrives under Frank’s excellent direction of stage artists who are blessed with innate musicality. Sound designer Nick Walker ensures that the music is heard at its pristine, balanced best.
The handsome set design of Alicia Clements is of an impressive scale, with a stage revolve revealing multiple changes of scene as the story flows ever forward. Top marks to stage manager Jess Maguire for achieving a number of backstage full set furniture changes in absolute silence. The stage picture is completed by Matt Scott’s crisp lighting design, which successfully plays an integral role in the heart-stopping climax.
Clements’ costume design is entertaining in its own right, particularly the clearly well researched evocations of 1970s “fashion.” Given the very significant use made of a high number of beautifully styled wigs, it is mind-boggling that no credit is given to hairstyling in the program.
An unrecognisable Lucy Maunder Alison gives an exquisitely understated performance as Alison. Frequently required to observe the action, Maunder lives and breathes the impact of these memories on Alison whilst nonetheless remaining unobtrusive. Taking the place of medium Alison in the final sequence, Maunder soars to new heights in 11 o’clock ballad “Telephone Wire,” in which Alison battles an interior monologue as to whether to speak candidly with her father about their mutual, yet contrastingly accepted, homosexuality.
In a highly auspicious mainstage debut, Ursula Searle delights as Medium Alison, capturing the unbridled, heart-on-your-sleeve fervour of a young woman thrilling to the danger and ecstasy of the realisation of her sexual identity while at university. In a song that could trace its lineage back to “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific, Searle fills the theatre with infectious joy as Alison, who is in love with a wonderful girl, professes she is “Changing My Major” to Joan.
At this performance, Flora Feldman gave a sweetly endearing performance as Small Alison. Displaying a maturity and poise that belie her years, Feldman held her own opposite adult co-stars and in the face of challenging material. Feldman nailed the emotional awakening that Small Alison conveys in “Ring of Keys,” a deceptively simple, ingeniously conceived song that has become something of a breakout hit amongst lesbian, and gay, fans of Fun Home.
At this performance, Edgar Stirling was a lively presence as Christian Bechdel, with Luka Sero scoring ready laughs as precocious moppet John Bechdel
Over and above the work of these wonderful young performers, Fun Home is blessed with two outstanding actors as the Bechdel parents.
In a performance that is as daringly brave as it is ever so finely calibrated, Adam Murphy brings all manner of subtle humanity to Bruce Bechdel, a man who can really only be described in so many regards as monstrous. For the large part, theatre stages belong to the extroverted; Murphy’s portrayal of this introverted control freak and predator is all the more remarkable for the way he brings the character across the footlights, so to speak, all the while completely avoiding the potential trappings that come with playing a highly unpleasant character.
In a striking sequence, the work of Bryant, Frank, Clements, Scott and Walker comes together in breathless fashion as Bruce manically unravels before Alison’s eyes. The set spins, the lights dip nightmarishly, and Murphy beautifully sings “Edges of the World.” It is testament to Murphy’s exceptional work that the ultimate fate of the basically irredeemable Bruce leaves the audience so affected.
One of Australian musical theatre’s most revered performers, Silvie Paladino makes a highly welcome appearance, and long overdue MTC debut, as long-suffering wife, Helen Bechdel. A performer of particularly high emotional intelligence, Paladino balances the devastating futility of Helen’s married life with her ingrained instinct for survival. In her own 11 o’clock number, Helen explains how she survived “Days and Days” of the marriage, with Paladino’s gorgeous voice soaring to its very best.
Rounding out the terrific cast, Emily Havea brings delightful warmth to Alison’s sweet-natured first lover, Joan. In a clever touch from the creators of Fun Home, a string of young men are all played by one actor, not only keeping cast costs down but also clearly demonstrating that Bruce had a “type.” WIth a gentle touch of humour, Euan Fistrovic Doidge neatly delineates Roy, Mark, Pete, and Bobby Jeremy. Fistovic Doidge also makes the most of his chance to shine as the glossy lead singer in the camptastic Partridge Family number.
Fun Home is musical theatre manna from the heavens that is absolutely not to be missed.
Photos: Jeff Busby