Director Gary Griffin has been having a field day in Chicago. In the past two theater seasons alone, he has had the task of shepherding several high-profile Broadway productions from New York City to the stages of Chicago. From the Shakespeare-infused King Charles III at Chicago Shakespeare Theater to the off-the-wall dark comedy Hand to God at Victory Gardens Theater, Griffin has delivered with aplomb. Now, opening Victory Gardens’ 43rd season, this versatile director delivers again with the first local production of the Tony Award-winning musical, Fun Home.
Based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, with music by Jeanine Tesori and an impeccably smart book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, Fun Home is an exploration of Bechdel’s childhood, burgeoning sexuality, and complicated relationship with her father, a closeted gay man who eventually commits suicide. Structured as a fluid memory play, we are taken through pivotal moments in Alison’s (Danni Smith) life as she remembers her Pennsylvania childhood and years spent at Oberlin College. Helping shed light on those memories are Hannah Starr as Medium Alison, and Stella Rose Hoyt as Small Alison, who provide two younger versions of Smith’s character for audiences to witness.
At first look, the Bechdels live a happy, if not typical, suburban life. In one of the opening songs, “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” we’re introduced to Alison and her mother, Helen, (McKinley Carter), father, Bruce, (Rob Lindley), and two brothers (Leo Gonzalez and Preetish Chakraborty, both equally charming). It isn’t until late in the number that Alison sings about her father’s death, and we begin to understand that much lies hidden beneath the traditional veneer the Bechdel family has thus managed to manifest.
While many facets comprise this thoroughly engaging Chicago production of Fun Home, one of the piece’s major strengths is the material itself. The literary quality of the piece is unmistakable. Tesori’s score is as nuanced and distinct as Kron’s book and lyrics, brimming with intelligence and pathos. Griffin ensures that audiences get to appreciate these subtleties by highlighting the subtexts of each scene and song in an understated way that delicately marries the actors and the material.
The cast and ensemble of this Victory Gardens production are also one of Fun Home’s major strengths. As Alison, Smith is expressive and agile, keeping the momentum perfectly tuned with her reflections, commentary, and wicked sense of timing. Rounding out the portrayals of Alison are the spunky and talented fifth grader Stella Rose Hoyt and the magnificent vocals of Hannah Starr, whose multifaceted performance is full of the naivete and wonder of someone truly discovering themselves for the first time.
Equally impressive are Carter and Lindley as Alison’s parents, who bring great depth to their major songs. To watch both Carter and Lindley’s relationship crumble in front of us is to peer fully through the cracks of the Bechdel’s familial dysfunction, and both actors do not shy away from the painful truths in their characters. Griffin has cast this production with the talent Chicago has become famous for, creating an ensemble whose raw performances fully realize the events of the musical in a way that practically jumps off the stage. Even those with less stage time (Danielle Davis as Joan, Alison’s college girlfriend, and Joe Lino as a host of men in Bruce’s troubled past) offer performances with such ease that it feels more like they are living in front of us rather than acting.
With a soaring soundtrack, powerful performances, and one of the best books of a musical in recent memory, Fun Home is a touching exploration of familial and personal identity. For those that may have seen the show on its Broadway tour, fear not: this production is surely worth the price of admission, a carefully crafted showcase of the clear areas where Chicago theater triumphs.
Fun Home has been extended and runs through November 19 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances are Tuesday-Friday at 7:30pm; Saturday at 3pm and 7:30pm; and Sunday at 3:00pm.
Regular performances are $15-$75. For tickets and information, call the Victory Gardens box office, 773.871.3000, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.victorygardens.org. Ask the box office about student and senior tickets.