by Kevin Shaw | photos courtesy of Playhouse on the Square
When did you first have an inkling of who you really were? I’m not referring to your surname or ethnicity, etc. I mean, deep down in a way that could not even be articulated? When did you feel that teeny, tiny glimmer? Fast forward a few years. When did you truly KNOW who you were? When did you know in a very profound, never-going-back way your true authentic self? Do you remember that “aha” moment? Was it a moment that you said to yourself, “Oh, #$@*, there’s no going back now?” I had an inkling of who I was back in the late 1970’s when I sat mesmerized in front of the television watching the “Donny and Marie Show.” I wondered why the other boys in my class weren’t as obsessed with Donny’s purple socks or the show’s signature skating on ice musical numbers. Was it a sign of something? Hint…it was. How about when I was in college standing in a rundown bar in 1986 drinking alone and playing pinball? I’ll never forget the moment when I glanced around the room and saw a very attractive fraternity guy sitting with his girlfriend and our eyes locked. A couple of hours later, I knew on a gut level as I laid in his arms listening ironically to Cutting Crews, “I Just Died in Your Arms” who I truly was. Actually, to be even more exacting, it wasn’t until 25 years later (after having been in long-term relationships with both men and women and thinking I was bisexual) that I identified most purely with the term pansexual. It’s nice to know who you are. It’s even better to accept it.
Fun Home, a charming, yet powerful new musical that opened at Playhouse on the Square this weekend deals with coming to terms with the sexual identity stuff, but it’s much deeper than that. It’s about taking a “bird’s eye view” of the entirety of your life and then knowing, accepting and embracing it. Based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir about growing up in a home that doubled as a funeral home (fun home, for short) and her complex relationship with her father, this 2015 Tony Award-Winning Best Musical was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Considering it’s the story about a lesbian growing up in a funeral home with her closeted homosexual father who ends up killing himself before she becomes a successful cartoonist, it’s remarkably realistic and identifiable. That’s because, at its core, it’s about family and learning the lessons our parents teach us—in this case, much more about what not to do, than what to do. Alison, the protagonist, is shown throughout the musical at three different stages of her life—grade school, college and current-day. As the current-day Alison recalls the “caption-able” moments of her life for her “comic book” storytelling, she sometimes winces in self-reflection at some experiences while also being able to place a resolute “period” of punctuation on others. It’s a journey of self-reflection that can only occur with a keen eye for hindsight at a significant distance from above. For Alison (and the audience) it’s a breathtaking view.
With a score by Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Shrek The Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie) and book/lyrics by Lisa Kron, the music is much more narratively-focused than musically-focused in that there aren’t a lot of songs you’ll leave humming in your head (except for possibly “Ring of Keys” and/or “Days and Days”) and that’s okay. The music is unique in the fact that it’s not the melody or even the words that inspire, but rather it’s the combining message that speaks to your soul in an unspeakable way.
As the adult Alison, Joy Brooke-Fairfield narrates and reflects on who she is and how she became that way with an investigative, yet artistic lens that is infused with compassion. Her choices as an actress are poignantly beautiful—make that “handsome.” Sarah Johnson is amazing as the Small Alison. As a singer and actress, she will touch your heart and make you root for her every step of the way. Her rendition of “Ring of Keys” is profound and will touch you deeply. But it’s Brooke Papritz as the Medium Allison who provides the heart of the musical. She’s so realistic and relatable to what it means to be a human, let alone lesbian, that you have no choice but to identify with her moment by moment. Her jarring, yet joyful realization of being gay is superbly endearing. In a word, Papritz is sublime. Heather Zurowski embodies the self-accepting and mentoring lesbian (and girlfriend) Joan to Papritz’s Alison. What a reward it is to have a role model in one’s life to personify an authentic self and Zurowski’s portrayal lends credence to Alison’s song, “Changing my Major (to Joan).” Carla McDonald takes on the role of Alison’s mother, Helen Bechdel and she will leave you questioning or relating—questioning as to how she could remain in this soul-killing marriage or identifying with her choice. Her marriage vows surely included, “For better or worse,” but “For better” never seems to have come. Her acknowledgement of it all slipping away is captured hauntingly in “Days and Days.” Her performance is finely poignant as a woman who just wants to disappear or already has. I don’t know where Stephen Huff has been, but Memphis is lucky to have him back in the role of Alison’s father, Bruce. As a man who wants to make the less than “pretty” things in this world pretty (antiques, houses, dead people in caskets), Huff also showcases a man coming apart at the seams. What do you do when you don’t want to be gay and you don’t want to not be gay? There is no winning here and Huff puts this man’s lifelong struggle on full display, fooling no one. He can’t love himself, so there’s no chance of him loving anyone else. Huff’s breakdown is so convincing, that, in the end, his ultimate choice seems perfectly reasonable. And that’s tragic.
Under the excellent direction of Dave Landis, Fun Home will strike you in its uniqueness compared to other chamber musicals. This exploration into identity is, well, so identifiable. Every family has its issues. This is perhaps the most non-judgmental show about making judgements you may ever see. Most kids see their parents as almost godlike until they mature. Then they become human in our eyes like everyone else. They shape us, guide us, hurt us, confuse us, betray us and love us. Their imperfections show through more and more as everyone gets older because, they, like us, are simply human. Go see Fun Home. You’ll find yourself wiping away tears throughout the show at moments that you can’t understand why. They’re not necessarily tears of joy or tears of sadness, but rather they’re tears that come from whispering to yourself, “I know you.”
Now through May 27, 2018