You’re going to need to cancel your weekend plans. Run, don’t walk to the box office at Bay City Players. You still have three more chances to catch their summer production of the 2015 musical Fun Home by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.
I’m getting ahead of myself - a sublime evening of theatre can do that. You probably don’t know much about Fun Home unless you are a real theatre enthusiast. You might recognize the name of the protagonist, Alison Bechdel, as the creator of a feminist “test” for the evaluation of media (do two women talk to each other about something other than a man?). You might be familiar with Bechdel as a cartoonist. You might have heard about Fun Home’s sweep of the 2015 Tony awards. But chances are, if you’ve heard of Fun Home at all, you heard about it as “the lesbian musical,” and possibly wrote it off as not being for you. That was a mistake, as one viewing of Fun Home at Bay City Players this weekend will tell you.
Fun Home uses songs and vignettes to tell the life of Alison Bechdel (played at three ages by Maddie Snawder, Jaeleen Davis, and Brianne Dolney) as she revisits her past and comes to terms with her emotionally abusive father, Bruce (played by True Rogers). Set mostly in the funeral home in which she was raised (the family refers to it as a “Fun Home”), we meet Bechdel at age 8 (Snawder): a precocious girl who loves to draw; at an awkward 18 (Davis), realizing that she is a lesbian while away at college, and at 43 (Dolney), drawing and narrating her memories while reconciling them with her father’s secret life as a closeted gay man.
The child actors in this show are excellent, from energetic Daniel Barnes and adorable Marcellous Rogers as Bechdel’s brothers, to perfectly polished and assured Snawder. Snawder in particular displays an outstanding set of pipes, and a sensitivity that is surprising for her age in the anthemic “Ring of Keys,” puzzling over her feeling of connection to a masculine-presenting, female delivery person.
The adults are no slouches either. Spencer Beyerlein and Alice Duffy are the romantic interests of the story, with Beyerlein portraying several young men who become involved with Bruce, and Duffy taking on Joan, Alison’s first love. Duffy and Davis have an easygoing chemistry and, although Joan is a small role, she is pivotal to the plot and portrayed with sensitivity and heart. Beyerlein is given several demanding solos which were mostly successful, and where he struggles with some high notes he makes up for it with silliness and commitment. Jaeleen Davis portrays Alison at age 18, a freshman in college discovering her identity as a lesbian. She is a riot in the comedic favorite ‘Changing my Major,” although she occasionally leans toward “schticky” in her role, sometimes relying on repetitive gestures/inflections. When she nails it, though, she’s the most fun performer in the show.
Marci Rogers as Helen Bechdel, Bruce’s long-suffering wife, makes this show a must-see. She and real-life husband True obviously have excellent chemistry and they have nailed the subtleties of married life. When portraying Helen, Rogers hits every voice break, every forced smile, every straightened book or dusted shelf (because “chaos never happens if it’s never seen.”). The heartbreaking “Days and Days” didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
While Brianne Dolney doesn’t come close to pulling off 43, she is breathtaking as adult Alison. Every detail is here. From the set of her mouth to her stance, she inhabits this character, and when she builds towards the climactic “Telephone Wire,” we as an audience are right there with her. Her performance takes a show that doesn’t have much of a plot on paper and anchors it with cohesion and understanding.
And of course, we can’t forget the professional-grade talent of True Rogers as Bruce Bechdel. This complicated character is erratic, abusive, selfish, narcissistic bordering on criminal - and deeply tragic and sympathetic. It is incredibly difficult to portray a character like this in a human way: seducing an underage boy with alcohol, crushing young Alison’s spirit with a cruel word, or abandoning his children in a New York City hotel room to cruise for a hookup. Rogers walks this line expertly, not one move or word or glance without intent and meaning. His singing voice is angelic, with the standout being his climactic song “Edges of the World.” Although we know his character is doomed, it somehow makes it even more painful when he meets his tragic end.
That’s not to say the show is flawless. This is a community stage, and a very demanding musical score. There are some dodgy notes from the actors, as well as some syncing issues with the orchestra headed by music director Kelley Gray. Some of the staging decisions by director Dr. Jeff List seemed odd, with important scenes taking place up and away from the audience while others were crowded or weirdly placed on the stage. This wasn’t helped by lights by Aaron Butler, which I must imagine were just off-cue. Many things were in full light that should have been in darkness, and some pivotal scenes were shadowed; hopefully this was just a programming error and can be fixed. Sound by L’Oreal Hartwell was fine; there were a few mic issues, but things could still be heard well enough. Makeup design by Lauren Klett and hair by Randi Foor Dalton were appropriate, as were costumes by Joy Butler. Set construction and design were very well done, with platforms and bold graphic depictions of Bechdel’s graphic novel on which the musical was based. Props were largely a collaborative effort, which took away from the bold and intentional design of the set. Choreography by Meagan Eager was simple and appropriate to the show.
If you crave a good discussion over drinks, this musical will be great conversation fodder for the nature of parent-child relationships, destructive secrets, and growing up/coming of age. If you believe in the power of theatre at all, then you need to catch this musical. This show deserves full houses.
Fun Home runs through July 29 at Bay City Players at 1214 Columbus Avenue in Bay City. For tickets, purchase them online or call 989-893-5555.