Refreshing Fun Home defies convention with its character-driven, coming-of-age musical

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Directed by Lois Anderson. At the Arts Club's Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, February 14. Continues until March 10

      As Fun Home opens, Bruce (Eric Craig), the family patriarch, has been antiquing and shows his discoveries to his daughter, Small Alison (Jaime MacLean). Bruce is a collector of fineries, filling their home with Irish linen and Dresden figurines.

      A 43-year-old version of Alison (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) watches the scene, à la A Christmas Carol. She’s a cartoonist and she’s rescuing memories from her childhood, in the same way her father salvages houses and knickknacks.

      Alison is Alison Bechdel, the creator of the award-winning graphic memoir upon which this show is based. The book and the musical tell remembered stories from her past as she realizes her own homosexuality and that her father is gay too. He’s an English teacher and also operates their small-town funeral home, or “fun home”.

      We watch Alison as she grows up and eventually escapes the long shadow her despairing father casts.

      Bechdel’s book is considered a masterpiece of the form, and her precision and wry humour have translated wonderfully to the musical stage. A freshman at college, Medium Alison (Kelli Ogmundson) awakens after spending her first night with her new girlfriend. She can’t believe her luck and sings, “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan/With a minor in kissing Joan/Foreign study to Joan’s inner thighs/A seminar on Joan’s ass in her Levi’s.”

      MacLean and Ogmundson kind of steal the show, in part because Small and Medium Alison get the best songs. MacLean sparkles in the terrific ballad “Ring of Keys” and she and her brothers (Glen Gordon and Nolen Dubuc) invent a hilarious radio ad in “Come to the Fun Home”. I’m usually not excited to see singing and dancing preteens on-stage, but all three were startlingly accomplished and highly entertaining.

      Amy McDougall’s costuming was on point. Bruce’s suits were fussily chic and Medium Alison’s mom jeans and loose plaid shirt were uncomfortably familiar to anyone who went to college in the grunge years.

      I was less certain about Amir Ofek’s set design. It was grand in its rendering of the Gothic-revival Bechdel house, with its semitranslucent wallpaper, crown mouldings, and gewgaws. I did question whether Bruce, with his excellent taste, would have permitted a white baby grand piano in his parlour.

      More practically, the stage has to represent many other places—a dorm room, a garden, a New York apartment. Maybe this was intentional, but the specificity of the set made the house ever-present. The script of Fun Home is full of maps and drawing. I wondered if a more impressionistic design, informed by Alison’s profession as a cartoonist, might have worked better.

      Fun Home is an unconventional musical. It’s character-driven, with a plot that spirals in on itself. It’s a tragicomedy, balancing the Bechdels' ennui with a droll wit. It’s a Canadian premiere of a show that only launched on Broadway in 2015. It’s also the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian. Refreshingly, all of that adds up to a very modern show.