Coming out, coming of age, coming to terms in four-star 'Fun Home' at Copley
"Fun Home" - ★ ★ ★ ★
Most musicals have what is commonly known as an 11 o'clock number: the showstopper that typically occurs late in the second act and centers on the principal character's epiphany that ushers in the show's conclusion.
"Fun Home," the exquisite, chamber musical based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic novel memoir -- now in an emotional, impeccably acted Paramount Theatre revival -- has two, possibly three. The first (and most obvious) is the penultimate "Edges of the World," a confessional from a father despairing over his inauthentic life. The second is the haunting "Telephone Wire," which details a daughter's attempt to connect with her father. And the third is "Days and Days," in which a long-suffering wife expresses the pain of living a lie.
That this show sustains two (possibly three) such numbers attests to the power of this coming-of-age/coming-out/coming-to-terms story and the depth of its characters, as well as its captivating Tony Award-winning score by writer/lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori.
"Fun Home" -- the title refers to the Bechdel family's Victorian fixer-upper and the family business, a small town, Pennsylvania funeral home -- is an intimate domestic dramedy. But Tesori's richly textured score and Kron's insight add a kind of grandeur. Musically and narratively, this show soars.
Credit for Paramount's stellar revival also rests with music director Kory Danielson and his small but mighty septet and with co-directors Jim Corti and Landree Fleming, who understand the narrative's strength is its honesty and its unsentimental portrayal of flawed, complex characters who will never be truly known.
The story centers on the ever-present but never intrusive Alison (fine work from Emilie Modaff), a 43-year-old lesbian cartoonist who examines her past to better understand herself and her closeted father Bruce (the superb Stephen Schellhardt, whose nuanced performance as the conflicted patriarch should be remembered next award season). A demanding, emotionally distant high school English teacher and part-time funeral director with a passion for restoring old houses that seems to outweigh family affection, Bruce died at 43.
"My dad and I were exactly alike," Alison explains. "My dad and I were nothing alike. My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist."
Alison is joined on her midlife retrospective by her younger selves. The delightfully pixieish Maya Keane (alternating with Milla Liss) plays prepubescent Alison, whose recognition of her same-sex attraction Keane articulates in the soaring "Ring of Keys." Elizabeth Stenholt, a lovely singer of manifest sincerity, plays college student Alison who -- having explored her sexuality with fellow student Joan (a warm, welcoming Devon Hayakawa) -- expresses her delight in "Changing My Major," a witty ode to first love.
The nonlinear tuner unfolds as a series of recollections involving her younger selves, which the adult Alison observes from the periphery. We see young Alison and her brothers Christian (Jaxon Mitchell) and John (Ezekiel Ruiz) cavorting to a commercial they've crafted for the funeral home. We watch as the Bechdel family tries to sugarcoat their unhappiness in the peppy, Partridge Family-inspired ditty "Raincoat of Love." And we ache for Alison's mother, Helen (a finely tuned performance by Emily Rohm), who quietly endures her husband's outbursts and infidelities until she doesn't. Letting loose in the aforementioned "Days and Days," Rohm delivers a blistering cri de coeur that is entirely earned despite the fact that we don't hear much from Helen over the musical's 100 minutes.
Equally impressive is Schellhardt's "Edges of the World," a dying declaration from a man we don't admire, but who -- thanks to Schellhardt's insight and Kron and Tesori's score -- we comprehend.
But for my money, this production's heartstopping moment is Modaff's yearning, achingly honest "Telephone Wire" in which Alison -- having failed to talk openly with her father -- realizes she will never have another opportunity. A wrenching moment for the character, it's a bittersweet, 11 o'clock reminder to the rest of us to speak our mind and share our truth before it's too late.
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Location: Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666, paramountaurora.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday; 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 18
Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Limited street parking, paid lots nearby
Rating: For teens and older; contains some adult language, depicts sexual situations and mentions suicide
COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masking not required, but masks are recommended