Coming out, coming of age, coming to terms in four-star 'Fun Home' at Copley

  • Milla Liss, front, Elizabeth Stenholt, middle, and Emilie Modaff play Alison Bechdel in "Fun Home," running through Sept. 18 at Aurora's Copley Theatre.

    Milla Liss, front, Elizabeth Stenholt, middle, and Emilie Modaff play Alison Bechdel in "Fun Home," running through Sept. 18 at Aurora's Copley Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 8/18/2022 10:02 AM

"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.

Maya Keane (who shares the role with Milla Liss) plays Small Alison and Stephen Schellhardt plays Alison's father, Bruce, in Copley Theatre's revival of the musical "Fun Home" directed by Jim Corti and Landree Fleming.
Maya Keane (who shares the role with Milla Liss) plays Small Alison and Stephen Schellhardt plays Alison's father, Bruce, in Copley Theatre's revival of the musical "Fun Home" directed by Jim Corti and Landree Fleming. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

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.

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Meet the Bechdel family: mother Helen (Emily Rohm), left, John (Ezekiel Ruiz), Small Alison (Maya Keane), Christian (Jaxon Mitchell) and father Bruce (Stephen Schellhardt) whose relationships are chronicled in the Tony Award-winning musical "Fun Home," running through Sept. 18 at Aurora's Copley Theatre.
Meet the Bechdel family: mother Helen (Emily Rohm), left, John (Ezekiel Ruiz), Small Alison (Maya Keane), Christian (Jaxon Mitchell) and father Bruce (Stephen Schellhardt) whose relationships are chronicled in the Tony Award-winning musical "Fun Home," running through Sept. 18 at Aurora's Copley Theatre. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

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.

Emilie Modaff, left, stars as adult Alison and Stephen Schellhardt plays her father, Bruce, in Paramount Theatre's BOLD Series production of "Fun Home," about a young woman coming-of-age/coming-out/coming-to-terms with her sexual identity.
Emilie Modaff, left, stars as adult Alison and Stephen Schellhardt plays her father, Bruce, in Paramount Theatre's BOLD Series production of "Fun Home," about a young woman coming-of-age/coming-out/coming-to-terms with her sexual identity. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"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."

Elizabeth Stenholt plays teenage Alison Bechdel in Copley Theatre's production of "Fun Home," which is based on Bechdel's coming-of-age graphic novel.
Elizabeth Stenholt plays teenage Alison Bechdel in Copley Theatre's production of "Fun Home," which is based on Bechdel's coming-of-age graphic novel. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

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.

Emily Rohm, foreground, plays Helen Bechdel, Emilie Modaff, left, plays her adult daughter Alison and Elizabeth Stenholt, center, plays teenage Alison in Paramount's BOLD Series production of "Fun Home," based on the coming-of-age graphic novel by Alison Bechdel with book and score by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.
Emily Rohm, foreground, plays Helen Bechdel, Emilie Modaff, left, plays her adult daughter Alison and Elizabeth Stenholt, center, plays teenage Alison in Paramount's BOLD Series production of "Fun Home," based on the coming-of-age graphic novel by Alison Bechdel with book and score by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

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.

Bruce Bechdel (Stephen Schellhardt) is a father struggling with his sexuality in the chamber musical "Fun Home" running through Sept. 18 at the Copley Theatre in Aurora.
Bruce Bechdel (Stephen Schellhardt) is a father struggling with his sexuality in the chamber musical "Fun Home" running through Sept. 18 at the Copley Theatre in Aurora. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

• • •

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

Tickets: $67-$74

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

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