As I walked to my seat at the historic Wells Theatre to see Fun Home, I was not quite sure what to expect. From listening to the cast album when the show premiered on Broadway in 2013, I knew the music, but not how it came alive. As the lights went down, I was filled with giddy expectation that was more than met as the cast brought this poignant story of family, love, and loss to life.
The show, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir, tells her life story, from childhood to college and to adulthood as she deals with–and draws–the curve balls life throws at her, and explores the omnipresent question of “Who am I?” With music and lyrics by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, the show is already a tour de force, yet the company at Virginia Stage Company took on the challenge and embellished in the hour and 45 minutes they spent with the audience.
Director Jessica Holt has created an emotion-filled piece with complete use of the space and a job well done with casting. Under the musical direction of Joana Li, the cast and 8 piece orchestra sitting on stage create a lovely blend, adding more to the already strong score. The visions of set designer Reid Thompson and costume designer Jeni Schaefer were brought to life through detailed, yet simplistic and pleasing sets and costumes, adding to the realism of the production. Building upon the set with masterful lighting, creating the mood of the piece, was lighting designer Annmarie Duggan. I especially loved the work of sound designer Christopher Barnes, as the actors pantomimed actions and the audience heard it. This added another layer to the performance.
At the heart of this show is the relationship between Alison and her father, as we watch Alison grow up and change. Adult Alison, played by Kate Fahrner, narrates and adds her own commentary to the action. Fahrner allows us to see into Alison’s heart as she looks over the shoulders of the characters with a sketchbook and pencil through the production, with her witty timing and mannerisms through the ups and downs of the plot. Sarah Stewart Chapin plays Medium Alison and masterly portrays the awkwardness of finding yourself and figuring out who you are. Her spirit-filled anthem, “Changing My Major” made me cringe and chuckle through Chapin’s gawkiness. Small Alison is played by Caleigh Howell. From the moment she runs on stage, she has an air of innocence about her, asking questions to her mom, Helen (April Poland) and dad, Bruce (Craig Waletzko). Alison’s brothers, John and Christian, are played by Jack Wielar and John Post, respectively. With the help of choreography by Jordan Dunlar, all three kids’ youthful energy bounces through the theater, during lively numbers like “Come to the Fun Home” and “Raincoat of Love.” Craig Waletzko plays Bruce, Alison’s father, who teaches high school English, restores old houses, and runs a funeral home in their small Pennsylvania town. Waletzko portrays Bruce’s divided personalities– with unbridled emotion– of a father, a husband, and a man keeping up a façade who picks up young men (all creatively played by Bart Mather) on the down low. The vehement performance given by Waletzko made me laugh at times and brought me to tears, as I watched both Bruce and Alison struggle with their self-identity as well as their relationship with each other. The performance of Rachel Feinstein, who plays Joan, Alison’s liberal and edgy girlfriend, is worth noting, as she portrayed the difference between confident Joan and awkward Alison exceptionally. April Poland plays Alison’s mother, Helen, and her floating voice adds to the matronly and wise words she scolds and teaches with.
Fun Home is both a coming of age and coming out story. With musical motifs and intense conflicts filled with piercing emotion, the cast was faced with telling a very meaningful and relevant story; they succeeded. The memories, hardships, and questions of life were created on the stage of the Wells Theatre. This show resonates with anyone who has ever thought about their own self-identity and how it came to be. The company creates a story that evokes self-reflection. I applaud each member of the cast, as I left the theatre feeling the lasting effects of this beautiful piece.
Virginia Stage Company’s Fun Home runs at the Wells Theatre through February 10th. Tickets here!