Fun Home, the latest production from Out of the Box Theatre Company, closes the gap between two of this century’s most vital art forms — the graphic novel and the post-Sondheim Broadway musical. Based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 memoir, with brilliant songs by Jeanine Tesori and an outstanding book by Lisa Kron, Fun Home tells a coming-out/coming-of-age story against a dark family background. The show captured five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2015, and it made LGBTQ theater history as the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. The complex and tragic story of Alison’s closeted father, Bruce Bechdel, and the devastating impact of his unexpected death comes loaded with erudite literary references, psychological insights, and dark ironies.
While that combination may not sound like a winning Broadway formula, the show’s success demonstrates that contemporary audiences are ready for challenging material as long as it delivers big emotional payoffs — something Fun Home does abundantly. When I spoke about the show with director Samantha Eve last week, she cited the song “Ring of Keys” as a personal favorite. It relates a moment when Alison is a young girl eating with her dad in a diner. A delivery woman comes through the door dressed in a “butch” outfit of lace-up work boots and denim jeans. “Small Alison,” as she is known in the show, can’t completely comprehend why, but there’s something about this woman that inspires her. It’s an early indication of Bechdel’s nascent identity, something that her gay father recognizes, and that makes him uncomfortable. It’s also a great song, filled with classic Broadway-style hope and yearning. The woman’s ring of keys symbolizes the power to open locked doors, and, although she can’t act on them yet, Small Alison’s feelings go out to her, and that fact is communicated in the beautiful and touching line, “Do you feel my heart saying ‘hi’?”
Fun Home was a long time in development, as Kron and Tesori wrestled with the task of translating Bechdel’s densely visual memoir into the language of performance. One of the ways in which they solved this puzzle was by multiplying the number of people playing the protagonist. There’s “Alison Bechdel,” the 43-year-old author who narrates the story, there’s “Medium Alison,” who portrays Bechdel as a 19-year-old college student, and then there’s “Small Alison,” who shows what it was like for a 10-year-old to struggle against her father’s expectations.
Although Out of the Box has presented shows that require child actors before — as recently as their 2018 production of Amélie — this time the challenge is greater than ever, as there’s another part, Alison’s brother Christian, that needs to be played by a young boy. To help manage the show’s extended family, Eve brought in Austin Escamilla, a Santa Barbara theater artist with lots of experience coaching young performers. Rob Grayson, who worked with Escamilla in the Elements Theatre Collective, will play Bruce Bechdel, the role that earned actor Michael Cerveris the 2015 Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical.
While it’s definitely not for children, there’s a lot to be said for Fun Home as an important learning experience for young adults. Along with Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, and Spring Awakening, it belongs to a growing canon of recent musical theater works that have the capacity to capture the teenage imagination without compromising on the way that difficult issues are raised and portrayed.
Out of the Box’s Fun Home runsApril 5-14 at Center Stage Theater. Call 963-0408 or see centerstagetheater.org.