A powerhouse ‘Fun Home’ at SpeakEasy
Having been blown away by “Fun Home’’ on Broadway and again when the touring version came to Boston last October, I half-expected SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production to be a letdown.
Uh, no. Quite the opposite, in fact.
SpeakEasy’s exquisite “Fun Home’’ proves that when this groundbreaking musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel is in the right hands — and director Paul Daigneault certainly qualifies — it remains as moving and rewarding as ever.
Indeed, seeing “Fun Home’’ a third time reconfirmed my conviction that what Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) have created ranks among the greatest musicals of our time, and not just because of their wonderfully varied, piercing, and intensely felt score, which in 2015 made them the first all-female songwriting team to win a Tony Award for best original score.
Underlying that score is a powerful coming-of-age story, told retrospectively, as Alison, a self-described “lesbian cartoonist,’’ journeys back through her family history in hopes of finally understanding the tormented, closeted gay father who committed suicide. Kron’s background as a playwright is evident in the musical’s solidity of structure; “Fun Home’’ illustrates the kind of depth musical theater is capable of, achieving an emotional resonance that we more often associate with non-musical plays.
That kind of rich material gives any director one hell of a head start, but Daigneault has added strength to strength, beginning with his three-quarter round staging inside the Roberts Studio Theatre, a configuration that creates an up-close intimacy that was lacking in last year’s otherwise excellent production on the proscenium stage of the Boston Opera House. Such intimacy was a key feature of the 2015 Broadway production, staged in the round at New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre.
So many other elements of the SpeakEasy production mesh beautifully. The superlative seven-piece band led by music director Matthew Stern illuminates all the colors within the “Fun Home’’ score. The design team delivers a vivid sense of time, place, and mood, from Charles Schoonmaker’s period-perfect costumes to Karen Perlow’s artful lighting to the mountainous bookshelf of Cristina Todesco’s set, its countless volumes more oppressive than inspiring.
And the cast? Terrific, across the board. Amy Jo Jackson is superb as middle-aged Alison, haunted by unanswered questions as she restlessly roams through the scenes of her tumultuous youth while constantly drawing on her sketch pad. Alison is trying to fill in the picture and figure out how much like her father she is now — and how much that has to do with why, at 43, she feels “stuck . . . unable to find my way through.’’ Jackson shatteringly conveys the ache of a woman seeking a connection that may never be achieved.
Todd Yard delivers a thoroughly compelling, finely etched portrait of Bruce, Alison’s father, who runs the family funeral parlor, teaches at the high school, and approaches the task of restoring houses with a zeal that reflects the obsession with facades and surfaces of a man who has much to conceal.
Yard captures Bruce’s irritability, narcissism, and control-freak absolutism, but also communicates a strong sense of the inner turmoil that comes with living a lie. In the opening number, “It All Comes Back,’’ as Bruce peruses a swath of Irish linen, he sings words that are more true of the daughter trying to reconnect the threads of their shared story (and who will later echo those words) than they are of him: “I want to know what’s true/ Dig deep into who/ And what, and why, and when/ Until now gives way to then.’’ That is precisely the trajectory Alison travels in “Fun Home.’’
Ellie van Amerongen, a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, excels as the endearingly awkward Alison at 19, who falls in love at Oberlin with a classmate named Joan (Desiré Graham) and promptly celebrates it with the breathless “Changing My Major.’’ And then there is Marissa Simeqi, a sixth-grader from Andover, who is a marvel as 8-year-old Alison. Her soulful, wise-beyond-her-years rendition of “Ring of Keys’’ will take your breath away as Alison recounts the sight of a “butch’’ delivery woman carrying herself with utter confidence and naturalness — and how it caused a flash of mingled self-realization, identification, and aspiration in the girl. Another spellbinder is the performance of “Days and Days’’ by Laura Marie Duncan as Helen, Alison’s mother, adding up the personal price she has paid during her marriage and warning her daughter against the kind of compromises she made.
That song is but one of many times “Fun Home’’ is devastatingly insightful about the dynamics of a troubled family, and one of many times it skillfully blends an in-the-moment specificity with a far-reaching universality, the hallmarks of the best drama. In every sense, this is a musical with not a single false note in it.
Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Music direction, Matthew Stern. Choreography, Sarah Crane. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 24. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com