TheaterWorks Hartford is currently presenting a moving and exemplary production of the musical “Fun Home.” With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, this show tells the story of Alison Bechdel (whose graphic novel the musical is based on) and how she struggles with memories of her father and how he has affected her life. Rob Ruggiero is the wonderful director of this production and he manages to mine all the laughter and tears out of this work. He is also extremely fortunate to have a terrific cast, especially Sarah Beth Pfeifer, as Alison, and Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, as Alison’s parents. “Fun Home” is an interesting show, since the character of Alison is actually played by three different actresses, at various ages in the character’s life. In addition to Sarah Beth Pfeifer, there is Julia Nightingale as Medium Alison and Skylar Lynn Matthews as Small Alison. While this might sound complicated, having three separate performers play the same character, it works excellently in the show.
The fantastic set design, by Luke Cantarella, is of the house that the Bechdel family lives in, with an upper level at the back of the stage, where set pieces are moved on and off. The offstage band, led by the expert musical director Jeff Cox, plays Jeanine Tesori’s music beautifully and it is actually the score of this show which truly propels the story. “Fun Home” is a deeply emotional show, but, since its central character is a lesbian cartoonist, it might not be for all people. Still, this production is so touching and engaging, that it ranks as a must-see. TheaterWorks Hartford has done a great job staging this musical and it is sure to touch the heart of any receptive theatergoer.
What helps make this show work so well is the uniformly fine cast. Right from the opening moments of “Fun Home,” it is Sarah Beth Pfeifer as Alison who grips the audience. Throughout the entire musical, which runs 90 minutes, with no intermission, Pfeifer is constantly probing her memory and various items from her home to try and come to some kind of peace with the complicated relationship she has had with her father. One sees Alison struggling to find answers, and this show manages to seamlessly present both the past and present at the same time. Pfeifer is quite extraordinary in the role and one takes this journey with her, as she gradually uncovers secrets and forgotten memories of her father.
As her father, Bruce, Aaron Lazar is very strong in his role. He has multiple professions in the show, including being an English teacher, a restorer of old homes, and a funeral director. The title, “Fun Home,” is actually a term that Bruce’s children use to describe the Bechdel funeral home. One of the most joyous moments in the show is when the three children, Jasper Burger, as John, Myles Low, as Christian, and Skylar Lynn Matthews, as Small Alison (all great) attempt to present a commercial to advertise their funeral home, in the hilarious number, “Come to the Fun Home.” This song is a bright spot in a musical that otherwise focuses on less than easy emotions. Lazar, as Bruce, is keeping multiple secrets in his life, which causes him to act erratically to his family. This actor manages to encompass all the facets in his troubled character, and Lazar is particularly heartbreaking in the musical number near the end of the show, “Edges of the World.”
In the portrayal of Alison’s mother Helen, director Ruggiero and actress Christiane Noll have chosen to focus on the anger and bitterness that this character is weighed down with. When Noll gets to her big song, “Days and Days,” it is a powerhouse performance which is almost terrifying. And, though this can take away some of the warmth that this character usually possesses, this way of presenting Helen works extremely well. Also fantastic is Julia Nightingale, as Medium Alison, especially in her big number, “Changing My Major.” Likewise, the fine Skylar Lynn Matthews, as Small Alison, gets the song “Ring of Keys,” which is a real breakout moment in the show. In mulitiple roles, Ali Louis Bourzgui is extremely good and Cameron Silliman really scores as Alison’s college friend, Joan.
The costumes, by Herin Kaputkin, are period perfect and evoke the era of the 1970s perfectly. The lighting design by Rob Denton is also evocative and the use of projections (by Camilla Tassi) is extremely illuminating. Still, it is the sight of the three actresses as Alison, near the end of the show, which ultimately makes the biggest impression in the musical. “Fun Home” is not an easy show to stage, but TheaterWorks Hartford has done a triumphant job of presenting this musical, with all of its various emotions intact, and the show is pretty riveting from beginning to end. Also, it must be mentioned that it is highly recommended to bring tissues when you see the show.
“Fun Home,” at TheaterWorks Hartford in Hartford, CT runs through November 6, 2022. For tickets, please visit http://www.twhartford.org
Photo: Sarah Beth Pfeifer and Aaron Lazar
Photo by Mike Marques