By Larry Laneer
April 12, 2018
Well, theatergoers, it’s my pleasant duty to report that Lyric Theatre is putting on a genuine hit at the Plaza Theatre. This should come as no surprise, as Fun Home has been one of the most lauded and awarded musicals since it was first staged in 2013. This is just the type of edgy, provocative work Lyric should be doing at its 16th Street home.
The show is based on the graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, “a lesbian cartoonist,” as she self-identifies early in the musical. With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, the show closely follows Bechdel’s memoir. The Bechdels live in a small Pennsylvania town where Alison’s father, Bruce, is a high school English teacher and funeral director at the Bechdel Funeral Home (the “fun home”). It’s not giving away anything to reveal that Bruce is gay (and deeply closeted), because Alison does so early in the show. The Bechdels are a classic dysfunctional American family.
That’s not to say they lack style and wit. They revel in music and good books. The mother plays classical piano. Bruce and Alison beat out a fine “Body and Soul” on the family grand piano to which they’ve written their own literary lyrics. But trouble brews beneath the intellectual and artistic façade.
This production deserves praise all around, so let’s start with the scenic design by Dawn Drake and lighting by Art Whaley. In a brilliant move, Lyric got Bechdel’s permission to use images from the book in the set design. Drake and Whaley adopted Bechdel’s bold, honest style for the entire set. And her color palette, which explains why glasses of sherry and wine look like they’re filled with Windex.
The story goes all over the place and back and forth in time. Three different actors play Alison at various ages. Michael Baron’s efficient staging keeps the show moving at a quick pace for two hours without intermission.
It’s almost unfair to single out particular performances, because the entire cast excels. But you will have your favorite moments. Mine begin with Taylor Yancey as Medium Alison. Her scenes with her first girlfriend in this coming-out story are some of the most intense ever seen on the Plaza stage. We look forward to seeing a lot more of Yancey.
Mateja Govich gives an unparalleled dramatic performance as Bruce. When Bruce begins to change late in the show, you can even see it in Govich’s face. Reese Freund carries a big load as Small Alison and shows extraordinary acting and singing chops for a young artist. As Alison’s mother, Mandy Jiran has her big moment in “Days and Days” late in the show in what may be her top performance after many years with Lyric. She also plays some fine piano.
Taylor Blackman in various roles and Coulter Hershey and Connor Willis as Alison’s younger, rambunctious brothers give strong performances. The Bechdel children make a completely inappropriate, but fun as hell, jingle for the funeral home in “Come to the Fun Home” early in the show.
Baron has made some interesting casting decisions. He cast Lyn Cramer as Alison. Cramer is one of our most highly regarded musical theater professionals as an actor, singer, director, and choreographer. The character Alison is 43 years old. Baron changed the dialog to make her 53, but Cramer is a bit older than that. Thus, Cramer is older than Govich and Jiran, who play her parents. This isn’t a flaw in the production. It means the show comes off as a memory play. Nothing’s wrong with that. Tennessee Williams did pretty well with his memory play, The Glass Menagerie. And it’s nice to see Cramer in the role.
Also, Baron cast Sandra Mae Frank, who happens to be deaf, as Alison’s first girlfriend, Joan. Frank was in Lyric’s 2016 American Sign Language production of Fiddler on the Roof. The show’s creators didn’t make the character deaf, but it doesn’t matter. As Frank signs, Joan’s dialog appears in projections in a Bechdel-like font. And Frank gives a feisty performance.
The show takes place in the 1970s, reflected with scary accuracy by Jeffrey Meeks’s costumes. Bruce would never wear a white belt with white shoes, but he’s not above plaid polyester trousers with a sport coat. Matthew Sipress’s choreography for “Come to the Fun Home” oozes with period accuracy.
You aren’t likely to walk out of the theater humming any of Tesori’s tunes, but her austere score fits well with this production and even has a few Coplandesque licks. It’s well played by a seven-piece onstage band that includes strings and woodwinds.
This show will not put a spring in your step; it’s not designed to do that. For some, it will be “there but for the grace of God go I.” But the show is that delightful convergence of worthy material and a quality production. It’s a theatergoer’s dream.
|Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m Saturdays,
2:00 p.m. Sundays, through April 29
1725 NW 16th St.
Tickets start at $45