By Mary Boyle
When we think of Broadway, we usually think big: big song and dance numbers, Fosse hands, shiny sequins, and pure entertainment; but, every once in awhile, a show comes along that follows a "less is more" motto; a show that is brilliant in its understatement; a show that is quietly profound, a cultural marker, and a testament to the power of theatre to make difficult topics accessible, to create social change, and to bring people together. This was the 2015, five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Fun Home, which has finally made its way to the Midwest with Forward Theater Company's production at the Overture in Madison through November 25th.
Based on the 2006 autobiographical "tragicomic" of the same name by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home is the story of Allison's struggle to reconcile her own coming out in the 1970's and her father's death by suicide shortly after, not long after Alison finds out that her father was also gay. While the topic doesn't sound like Broadway Musical material, or that it would be any "fun" at all (especially when you realize that the "fun" in Fun Home is the nickname the family uses for their funeral home business), Bechdel's a witty cartoonist, and the book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori alternate between laugh-out-loud hysterical to heart-swelling, tear-inducing wonders.
In the show, Alison (played by Tony Award-winning actress, Karen Olivo) is writing her cartoon memoir as a 40 something looking back on both her childhood self (played by Chantae Miller) and her college self (played by Rachael Zientek). Sitting in her Pennsylvania childhood home, looking at old objects and reading her old diary, Alison revisits her relationship with her father, Bruce (played by Matt Daniels), an accomplished and well-respected historic home renovator, English teacher, and part-time funeral director who demanded the same relentless excellence from his wife, Helen (played by Clare Arena Haden), and his three children, as he does from himself. To all the world, the family appears as polished as their historic home on Maple Avenue but, as is often the case, appearances are deceiving.
While growing up, Alison always knew she was different, but didn't realize until college that she was gay. With a new love named Joan (Solana Ramirez-Garcia) and a supportive community on campus, Alison breaks the news to her parents, fretting that her perfectionist father will never accept or understand her, only to discover that her father had been having secret affairs with other men since before he married her mother. Hoping to finally have a genuine connection, Alison soon realizes that her experience and her father's were nothing alike; unlike her, her father had struggled to hide his true self and, in doing so, lived with private shame and anger that destroyed his relationship with his wife and, ultimately, caused him to take his own life.
Directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Fun Home is Forward Theater's very first musical, but follows their 10 year tradition of choosing "stories that speak to what we struggle with today." Uphoff Gray points out that the three Alisons look nothing alike: "one is black, one is white, and one multiracial. The truth is, we took great care to cast our Fun Home this way, because, in fact, it felt urgent to do so. Though Alison's journey is one of assuming a specific sexuality while a specific authority in her life models an opposing path, the heart of Fun Home feels intensely universal now. Because now feels like a time in which we're all a lot freer to...love who we truly love and to pursue that love with the intensity and passion and clarity that only song can rightly capture."
With a live orchestra directed by Mark Wurzelbacher, The Playhouse at the Overture Center is the perfect, intimate setting for this production, which is overflowing with talent. Now a resident of Madison, Karen Olivo, who originated the role of Vanessa in Lin Manuel Miranda's first hit musical, In the Heights, and played Angelica Schuyler in the Chicago production of Miranda's Hamilton, shines as the elder Alison, but Rachael Zientek and Chantae Miller are equally talented; while Zeintek's "Changing My Major" and Miller's "Ring of Keys" are the highlights of the show (the first made me laugh out loud, and the second made me cry), absolute magic happens when the three Alisons sing together. Milwaukee favorite, Matt Daniels, demonstrates his vocal chops are as good as his acting, and delivers an incredible performance as Bruce. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Donovan Lonsdale, who is an absolute scene-stealer as Alison's youngest brother.
Fun Home truly is a fun time, but it's so much more than that; as the world seems to become more and more divided, it's shows like this that shine a light in the darkness and give us all hope that we can love each other, despite our differences. Alison's father, Bruce, is a testament to what becomes of intolerance, while Alison is a testament to what becomes of acceptance; we have come a long way, but we can, and we must, do better. Forward Theater's production makes it easy to see how this unusual little show won the Tony Award for Best Musical — do not miss your chance to see it!
Fun Home runs through November 25th at The Playhouse at the Overture Center, located at 201 State Street in Madison. Tickets are available by calling the Box Office at 608-258-4141, in person at the Box Office, or online at https://www.forwardtheater.com.
About Forward Theater
Forward Theater Company is a not-for-profit professional theater company founded to provide exceptional theater experiences for area audiences and give professional actors, designers, and directors an artistic home. Forward Theater Company is proud be a resident organization in the beautiful Overture Center for the Arts, providing opportunities for artists and audiences to explore great dramas and provoke conversations about the issues that matter the most.