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‘Fun Home’ is a musical with a message

Journal Correspondent

Marissa Simeqi as Small Alison and Todd Yard as her father Bruce play “airplane” in “Fun Home.” Photo by Nile Scott Studios

NOVEMBER 22, 2018 – Lisa Kron and Alison Bechdel have a lot in common. Both are lesbian daughters – the former of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and the latter of a closeted English teacher and funeral home director – who have written about their respective relationships with their fathers.

In “2.5 Minute Ride,” her Obie Award-winning 1999 book, Jewish playwright Kron details accompanying her father, Walter, to his hometown in Germany and to Auschwitz, where he believed his parents died. (He later found out that they actually died at Chelmno.) In her acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” Bechdel struggles to understand her closeted father Bruce, his ongoing emotional conflict, and his eventual (probable) suicide. In both cases, the daughters reflected on the significance of their respective situations and their push-pull relationships.

Bechdel’s memoir was adapted into a musical with book and lyrics by Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori. “Fun Home,” which won a Tony Award for best musical in 2015, is being presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 24.

As in the Broadway production, SpeakEasy artistic director Paul Daigneault is staging the local premiere with an audience-involving configuration: here a stage with theatergoers on virtually all sides for an intimate effect. That closeness provides a perfect fit for Alison’s memories.

What remarkably sets that story and “Fun Home” apart is the musical’s trio of Alisons: 8-year-old Small Alison, 18-19 year-old college student Medium Alison, and the 43-year-old much wiser adult simply identified as Alison. Throughout Alison’s odyssey, she moves around the sprawling set – designed in vivid detail by Cristina Todesco – that largely represents the Bechdels’ Beech Creek, Pa., home but also includes Bruce’s funeral home and Medium Alison’s Oberlin College dorm room.

Frequently an observer as well as a family member, Alison analyzes her experiences as Small Alison and Medium Alison to gain insight about her own childhood and full realization of her sexuality. The adult daughter – in Kron’s play and Bechdel’s graphic memoir – unflinchingly deals with her mother’s angst and awareness of her husband’s sexual orientation as well as her father’s disturbing attraction to teenage boys, even his high school students.

Humor sometimes makes its way even into serious passages. Perhaps the most amusing stretch is Small Alison and her brothers’ lively collaboration on an inventive commercial for the funeral home, a standout number entitled “Come to the Fun Home.”

Daigneault and a generally inspired cast capture the show’s singular blend of caring and candor. Amy Jo Jackson has all of Alison’s gradual awakening about herself and about her father. Todd Yard sings vibrantly as Bruce – particularly on the riveting solo “Edges of the World” and does well demonstrating his early affection for Alison, though he could do with more of the vulnerability Michael Cerveris brought to this pivotal role in his Tony Award-winning performance. Laura Marie Duncan finds mother Helen’s pain and frustration and delivers the standout number “Days and Days” with heart-wrenching intensity.

Marissa Simeqi is properly spirited and wonderstruck as Small Alison, especially on her revealing solo, “Ring of Keys.” Ellie van Amerongen catches Medium Alison’s naiveté as a college newcomer and embrace of feelings for fellow student Joan – played with fitting warmth by Desiré Graham – in the clever solo “Changing My Major.”

Frequent SpeakEasy music director Matthew Stern conducts with great heart. Designer Karen Perlow brings nuance to Alison’s striking perceptions.

Kron has spoken of sharing Bechdel’s interest in looking at the difference between a story and what actually happens. That interest richly invests her lines and lyrics and provides much to explore in SpeakEasy’s poignant “Fun Home.”

For tickets, call 617-933-8600 or visit bostontheatrescene.com.

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