Arts musical review

Come to the Fun Home! The Bechdel Funeral Home, that is

Tony-award winning musical ‘Fun Home’ comes to the Boston Center for the Arts

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The child, adult, and college-age Allisons all sing together at the end of the musical 'Fun Home.'
Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Fun Home
Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Music composed by Jeanine Tesori
Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts
Oct. 19–Nov. 24

Death and history loom over the Bechdel funeral home, the historical museum lovingly crafted by its director, Alison’s father Bruce Bechdel (Todd Yard), and cared for by her mother, Helen Bechdel (Laura Marie Duncan). The funeral home — affectionately named Fun Home by the children —  is the stage set, with painted white eaves hanging from the ceiling and antique furniture and ornamental rugs on the floor. As adult Alison Bechdel (Amy Jo Jackson) illustrates her childhood and college years in her graphic memoir Fun Home, she recalls her newfound acceptance after coming out as lesbian in college just as her closeted gay father dies from getting hit by a truck. We know Bruce dies — it’s revealed early on in the musical — but that’s not the point. It’s the circles drawn through and around it that we walk in this musical.

Go watch this musical. I can’t do justice to this with words. In particular, this is a hard review to write because I can only explain events individually, but the musical audience can see all three timelines interacting together: Alison Bechdel as a child (Marissa Simeqi), college student (Ellie Van Amerongen), and adult. I imagine adapting the memoir into Fun Home the musical was difficult. The memoir makes numerous literary references to modernist works and explores themes of memory, sexual discovery, identity, and aesthetics with such meticulous detail that it’s impossible to put all of this into a musical under two hours, so, of course, they have to omit details. The sharedkey theme is memory; the musical and memoir both explore how we revisit our painful memories, how we choose what to forget and remember, how we try to distill truth from them but can’t because we only have the leftovers and the emotions that still pour from them.

Many adaptations don’t translate well to different media, but playwright Lisa Kron expands on pivotal moments in the memoir that were only one or a few panels. Adult Bechdel can literally watch her child self being called to see a dead body her father was working on, and then asking what it all meant. She can look back to her college self looking back to her child self, when Bruce told her to wear a dress and her child self did not like it. She can even announce, “Caption!” as she works on her comic book, deciding how to record her history. And naturally, she remembers the time Bruce criticized her artwork as a young child for its lack of composition and aesthetic appeal, how her work is all over the place, in a cheeky nod to what she’s working on now.

Alison discovers her father is seeing a psychiatrist after handing a beer to a minor; Bruce says to her, seething, “I’m not good like you.” We find out what this means when college-age Allison comes out to her parents after starting a relationship with Joan (Desire Graham), and Helen reveals Bruce’s extramarital affairs with men and underage boys. Helen, expectedly, had reacted negatively to Allison’s coming out, while Bruce and Allison come to an unfulfilling, half-spoken understanding during their last conversation before Bruce’s death. Alison has reason to suspect it was suicide, giving the musical a different light.

While Alison is free to explore multiple times in her life, Bruce Bechdel is trapped in his time period: the fact that he was born decades before Alison meant he has already married Helen and has had children. In many ways, it is too late to explore his queer identity without destroying his livelihood. Bruce is a complicated man. Todd Yard gives a controlled performance as Bruce, but he brings ferocity to scenes where the perfectionist artist comes through while carrying a gentleness as a loving father, singing to Alison before she sleeps.

While this seems like a morbid drama, it can be funny, endearing, and lighthearted. The exuberant performance by the children actors — Marissa Simeqi, Luke Gold, and Cameron Levesque — brings an appreciated vitality to moments of humor in a musical about death. The small theater and set design bring us closer to the stage than a Broadway musical, giving us an intimate look into their home life. The musical numbers are upbeat and catchy yet fit wholly into the ironic world of a fun home.

Explaining the elements separately cannot compare to how emotionally resonant this musical is on stage. Alison Bechdel explores her father’s death in suppositions and half-truths, reads in between the lines of letters and conversations, and draws from slivers of memories: memory is all but what remains of Bruce Bechdel’s intellectual, complicated life before his death. We join her on this circular journey, leaping through time over and over, watching Allison growing into herself while Bruce hurtles towards a death that we know is coming but are afraid of anyways.