Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Fun Home
Victory Gardens Theatre
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's reviews of A View from the Bridge and The Rembrandt

Hannah Starr, Danielle Davis, and Danni Smith
Photo by Liz Lauren
It was just last November (2016) that the tour of the Tony Award-winning Fun Home stopped in Chicago for a two-week run, so some might say September to October 2017 is a little early to be doing a homegrown production. Perhaps, but many might wonder how this very personal musical would play in a smaller venue than the 2000-seat Oriental Theatre where the tour played. And beyond that, would the subscription audience and regular patrons of the non-profit Victory Gardens Theater be more receptive to this touching and tragic story of a gay father and lesbian daughter who are integrating their sexual orientation into their lives in very different ways? For those who caught either the tour or the Broadway production, Victory Gardens' production offers a look at Fun Home through a new set of eyes, those of director Gary Griffin and his impressive cast. Those who haven't (or hadn't) seen it previously are getting an opportunity to see a fine production of this amazing work by Lisa Kron and Jeannine Tesori, based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel.

Fun Home details Bechdel's pre-adolescent years as she begins to understand her sexual orientation and gender identity, her coming out as a lesbian at age 19, and her observations of her father's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to reconcile his attraction to men with the role of a small-town husband and father. At age 10, young Alison realizes she's uncomfortable wearing dresses. Not much later, she notices and finds she's attracted to a masculine-looking delivery woman. Concurrently, she also begins to notice signs of her father's interest in men, a situation that becomes all too evident after her father Bruce is convicted of providing alcohol to a minor boy in a botched seduction attempt. It's not until Alison goes away to college—the historically progressive Oberlin College in Ohio—that she comes out as a lesbian. Meanwhile, her father's inability to accept his own orientation becomes untenable. Not long after Alison's coming out, he takes his own life.

Not easy subject matter for an art form that is more quickly identified with light comedies and romance, but what's even more impressive about Fun Home than its "serious" content is the way it feels totally genuine and authentic throughout. There's never a moment that feels contrived or forced. It always feels like we are inside Alison's mind and heart—experiencing exactly what she felt while reflecting on events in the lives of herself and family. Fun Home is artful in the way it moves freely in time between Alison's memories from ages 10 and 19 and her active recollections of events in the present as she is writing and drawing her graphic novel, but it's never arty. We always feel the words by Kron and the alternately soulful and exuberant music by Tesori are in service of the ideas—not to show off, or to provide entertainment value. I can't think of another Broadway musical—not even the greatest works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or the much-admired Hamilton—that feels as personal and un-self-conscious.

Fun Home is, impressively, the first Broadway musical with a lesbian as its central character, but Alison's journey of coming out is resonant for gay men as well. While the specifics of Alison's first recognition of attraction to women—her sighting of the delivery woman carrying the "Ring of Keys" as described in the song of that title—her attendant emotions are recognizable. And her feelings of first love—for her college classmate Joan—are giddily and awkwardly expressed in the lyrics "I'm changing my major to Joan" in a way that's accurate for gay men and women. Surely first love is giddy for all, but for those who didn't believe the sort of love they desired would be possible for them—that there could be someone of their gender attractive to them that would be attracted back—first love is especially sweet.

Griffin, always a strong director of actors, has a cast that is up to the challenges of this material. His adult Alison is the formidable Danni Smith, who over recent years has evolved from storefront theater discovery to one of the city's top Equity musical theater actresses. Smith is a musical theater chameleon, able to move between roles as diverse as Passion's Fosca or Man of La Mancha's Aldonza to Patsy Cline, Mary Magdalene, or The Wild Party's Queenie. As the somewhat detached narrator of Fun Home, we don't get to see much of Smith's range until late in the show when the adult Alison tries desperately to understand and connect with her father in the songs "Telephone Wire," and the finale, "Flying." When she gets to that moment, though, there's an intensity that fully communicates Bechdel's pain in trying to reconcile the life-affirming nature of her own coming out with the way her father's closeted nature killed him. Smith brings it all home at that point—the mixture of pain alongside Alison's personal joy all bubbles over.

Rob Lindley's take on Alison's father is as a quirky and tense man, one that surely would have stood out at least a little in a small rural town like Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. It's another great notch in a career that includes heavy dramatic roles (like Prior Walter in Angels in America at Court Theater) with musical theater. He's more than up to the dramatic and musical challenges here. Another Chicago musical theater vet with significant acting chops, McKinley Carter, plays the wife and mother Helen, and through Carter we see the pain and emptiness of a woman, who through no fault of her own, suffers from an increasing physical and emotional distance from her closeted husband.

Chicago audiences expect good work from Smith, Lindley and Carter, but this production also includes an astonishing performance by Hannah Starr as "Medium Alison," the 19-year-old who finds herself in love with Joan. In many ways, this is the most important role in the show, depicting the time in Alison's life when she took the biggest steps in her journey. Starr conveys all the youthful energy of the 19-year-old—the anxiety and the euphoria of her coming out and falling in love, the disappointment toward her parents for not being supportive and her uncertain reaction about learning more about her father's issues. Starr shows us all this in a performance that is highly watchable and entertaining.

The unit set by Yu Shibagaki is minimal—just a bare brick wall upstage and a few pieces of furniture. We don't see the elaborate, museum-like collection of paintings, antique furniture and vases that are mentioned in the dialogue. We have to imagine the ornate décor of the home that Bruce has his family continually polish, and thus the production misses the chance to show us just exactly how passionate Bruce is about home restoration. It may be that Griffin wanted to avoid a particular gay male stereotype of obsession over home furnishings, particularly those evoking earlier eras. Or maybe it was just budget considerations.

Bruce's story is a tragedy, for sure. While it's upsetting to see that Bruce never is shown to even consider the possibility of living his life honestly, we have to remember that in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania—a town of less than 1000 people located in the dead center of the state, three hours from either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh—there were no local role models for that. And in the 1960s and '70s, few role models if any in the national media, either. Alison is lucky to have found her way to a place like Oberlin College, an uber-progressive liberal arts college that was likely way ahead of its time in having a gay student group in 1970.

Coming out stories have long been a mainstay of LGBT literature, but works that show the pain of staying in the closet are less common. Fun Home impressively, does both.

Fun Home will play the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, through November 12, 2017. For ticket info, visit or call 773-871-3000.

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