Victory Gardens Theater kicks off its 43rd season with “Fun Home” – the coming-of-age, coming-out story that received five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. More significantly, it marked a win for Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics), the first all-female writing team to earn Tonys for Best Original Score.
“Fun Home” also has the distinction of being the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, a part played by three actresses. Danni Smith portrays Alison as a 43-year-old cartoonist reflecting on her life, and that of her deceased father’s.
Through flashbacks, the audience meets a young Alison (Stella Rose Hoyt) growing up in a funeral home she and her brothers call “fun home.” Much emphasis, including the show’s title and a joyful musical number, is devoted to the funereal setting, but this theme is dropped as the play moves forward, even though metaphors of a lifeless existence and dying marriage between Alison’s parents could have made an ideal duet later in the 90-minute run time.
Instead, Alison’s mother (well performed by McKinley Carter) sings “Days and Days,” which ends with her giving Alison permission to be herself, saying, “I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me.” But didn’t she?
As Alison recalls her childhood, there are no noteworthy moments of her mom leading by example. Yet, oddly enough, Alison does remember events she had no part in, like when her father hits on a 15-year-old boy (played by an actor twice that age). These unnecessary scenes defy Alison’s memory and blow the reveal. Audiences should discover her dad’s sexuality when she does, further on in the play.
But that doesn’t happen because Alison announces he’s gay within the first few minutes (there goes the build-up) and Rob Lindley plays him as if he’s out of the closet from the start. Without conveying repression, tension weakens, as does empathy for his situation. Similarly, without displaying the charm his character is said to possess, he comes off as unlikable rather than complicated.
Fortunately, the musical has bright spots such as “I’m Changing My Major” comically sung by the college-aged Alison (Hannah Starr, left). Living up to her name, Starr shines as she gives the most natural and endearing performance under Gary Griffin’s direction.
The play is inspired by Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, but her visuals are lost in theatrical translation. No matter how stylish and seamless Yu Shibagaki’s set is, the stage begs for projected images of the main character’s drawings. Without those, “Fun Home” feels incomplete, despite the praise and accolades. That’s not to say its glowing coverage is a complete case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” more like the material has a few holes. Still, viewers with similar experiences will find comfort in it.
“Fun Home” runs through Nov. 12 at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. For tickets ($15-$75), visit www.victorygardens.org.
Photos by Liz Lauren. Top: McKinley Carter, Preetish Chakraborty, Stella Rose Hoyt, Leo Gonzalez and Rob Lindley. Left: Hannah Starr