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Theatre Reviews Review: Exquisitely heart-wrenching, Tony winner Fun Home is a classic in the making

Evan Buliung and Hannah Levinson (playing a young Alison Bechdel) in Fun Home.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish

  • Title: Fun Home
  • Book and lyrics by: Lisa Kron
  • Music by: Jeanine Tesori
  • Director: Robert McQueen
  • StarringLaura Condlln, Sara Farb and Hannah Levinson
  • Company: The Musical Stage Company
  • Venue: CAA Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Runs to May 6, 2018

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Here’s hoping Fun Home unpacks its bags and sticks around for the summer.

The Musical Stage Company’s exquisitely emotional Toronto premiere of the Tony-winning musical adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir opened on Wednesday – and is somehow only scheduled at the CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic Theatre) until May 6.

But this complicated double coming-out story that was named the best musical of 2015 in New York deserves a much longer run with this A-team of a Canadian cast, presented as part of the off-Mirvish season.

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Told in a swirl of flashbacks to the 1970s and 80s, playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori’s musical follows cartoonist Alison (Laura Condlln) as she reflects on the bittersweet time in her life when she realized she was gay – and at almost the exact same moment realized that her father was gay, too.

“I leapt out of the closet and four months later, my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck,” she tells us early on.

Laura Condlln (playing an adult Alison Bechdel) looks back in time from the age her father (played by Evan Buliung) was when he killed himself.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish

A lack of suspense in terms of plot doesn’t mean a lack of power in the storytelling, however; as in an ancient Greek tragedy, knowing the destination only makes the journey there more heart-wrenching.

While plays based on autobiographies often have an indistinct character at the centre, Fun Home – which has the benefit of being adapted by two outside eyes – gives us three beautifully drawn versions of Alison.

Stage veteran Condlln is the adult one, looking back from the age her father was when he killed himself, sitting down to draw what will become her celebrated graphic memoir; Stratford Festival star Sara Farb is the college-age one, embarking on her first love affair with an activist named Joan (Sabryn Rock) as trouble brews back home; and 11-year-old Hannah Levinson (Matilda: The Musical) plays the youngest one, who only half-understands her family, herself and the world around her in small-town Pennsylvania.

That child-like state is where Alison’s father, Bruce (Evan Buliung), seems stuck – alternating between tantrums about keeping the house sparkling clean and rages fuelled by his inability to keep his own messiness inside.

Cynthia Dale and Hannah Levinson in Fun Home.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish

Unable or unwilling to face reality, Bruce puts on a patriarchal persona as best he can and overloads on work to avoid his wife, Helen (Cynthia Dale) – teaching English at the local high school, fixing up heritage homes and running the family funeral home business he inherited (the “fun home” of the title).

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But Buliung’s thorny, tortured performance as Bruce goes well beyond victimhood – and veteran stage performer Dale does a fine job of showing the complex collateral damage caused by his (self-)deception.

Amid the often sombre tone of this storyline, there is joy in that of Alison’s coming of age in a time when she will not have to hide. The preternaturally talented Levinson gives an acting master class in a song called Ring of Keys that explores preteen Alison’s inchoate inner feelings when she sees a woman in a café (that her older self recognizes as “an old-school butch”), while Farb delightfully lets young-adult Alison be overcome with happiness as she sings Changing My Major (to Joan).

As the oldest Alison, Condlln mostly wanders around the stage remembering what we’re watching – but when she finally gets to insert herself into a scene for the song Telephone Wire, she gives a crushing rendition of Kron’s poignant pointillist lyrics about things unsaid to a loved one, to which anyone will be able to relate.

A moment of fun in the performance is when Liam MacDonald, Jasper Lincoln and Hannah Levinson record an ad for their family funeral home business.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish

There are moments of just plain fun to be had in Fun Home, too – such as the scene in which the youngest Alison and her two brothers (cute kids Jasper Lincoln and Liam MacDonald) record an ad for their family business on an old-fashioned tape deck that sounds like a Jackson Five tune.

Tesori’s top-notch score draws omnivorously from the music of the period – and musical director Reza Jacobs commands an unseen orchestra of five that sounds much bigger thanks to multi-instrumentalists such as Merlin Williams, whose inquisitively butch English horn solos almost become a character of their own.

There are a few minor stumbles in director Robert McQueen’s otherwise tight production: A blindingly white set piece designed by Camellia Koo that distracts at the opening and end of the show; a fantasy family number that only comes off as cheesy due to confusing choreography by Stephanie Graham; and a supporting performance by Eric Morin as a succession of young men who attract Bruce’s attention that sticks out by signalling too much in a show full of otherwise subtle shading.

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But, in the end, with particularly memorable performances by Buliung, Farb and Levinson – all of whom will no doubt be recognized when the Dora Mavor Moore Awards come around – the Musical Stage Company’s biggest production to date feels like an unmissable one. Bechdel, Kron and Tesori’s tale of a family only partly able to change with the times is a classic in the making – this century’s best answer so far to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.

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