As the lights at PURE dimmed on Friday night, I was frantically on my iPhone, in wild search for the function to block some relatives from my Facebook page, with hopes of quelling escalating posts that threatened to lay bare our special brand of family dysfunction.
Why am I over sharing, you ask? As a writer, I know well the power of putting forth intimate stories to mine the dark spots of the human heart. What's more, when it comes to theater reviews, I believe that the confessional underscores how the theatrical experience joins the personal and the universal.
Fun Home, the soul-stirring and soul-bearing musical created by playwright/lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori, is based on a personal account: Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. In it, she shares her story of coming out as a lesbian, in tandem with that of her closeted father's suicide. To do so, PURE has imported director Chad Henderson of Columbia's Trustus Theater, as well as Manny Houston, who serves as musical director of Tesori's elegant and emotionally resonant score.
You may recall that in 2014 concert stagings of the Broadway production of the show materialized at Memminger Auditorium prompted by a flap surrounding state funding. That production also introduced the first lesbian protagonist to the Great White Way, and then swooped up a Tony Award in 2015 for best musical and other Tonys, too.
It was clear from the get go that this gorgeously spun heartbreaker of a work was going to render the personal universal in ways that delicately nudge at all our tucked-away childhood hurts, while also offering the healing balm of music. From seamless compositional flow to a finely crafted splicing of the past and the present, Fun Home ushers in a new, long muffled voice in American musical theater that can do us all a world of good.
Sure, in some ways, it's not your standard issue Broadway musical. In Fun Home, girls make out with girls and a father preys on unsuspecting neighborhood teens. And, yes, there is unresolved family strife and a suicide to boot. And, true, much of the action takes place in the family funeral home and references items like aneurysm hooks. The moment you step into PURE's black box, a coffin awaiting its big scene greets you. But cheer up: There is ample gallows humor and a phenomenal score to bring you back up for air as you submerge in the murkier stuff of life.
Related Author of Fun Home memoir protested by S.C. legislature awarded 'genius' grant: Bechdel visited Charleston for April performance of "Fun Home"
The main character, Alison Bechdel, is portrayed by three different actors representing her at different ages – as a young girl; as a college freshman; and as a 43-year-old woman who narrates her story by way of a series of captions culled from the graphic memoir. Each brings much to the production. The grown up Alison gets a compelling and credible spin by Emily Wilhoit, whose crisp, pretty vocals perfectly suit her songs. PURE newbie Grace Benigni portrays Medium Alison, who is off at Oberlin struggling with her sexual identity. Fresh-faced and sympathetic, Benigni's Alison stumbles through those first tentative, tender steps of desire—and succeeds wholly in getting us to wince along with her palpable vulnerability.
And then there is that kid. Now, I'll admit, I have a maternal inclination to view young performers as if they were my own children. When they fall flat or fail to hit a note I die a million deaths for them, so I always warily inhale when a pint-size performer enters stage right. With that in mind, it was with particular pleasure that I took in the masterful, moving performance of Ambria Rogers as Small Alison.
With the considerable talents of PURE's ensemble, it is no small feat to steal a show. But steal it Rogers did, bringing the baby-faced hopes and first glimmers of self-identity that took full possession of my heart – rendering the ensuing heartbreak all the more meaningful and mournful. And not only does she have boatloads of scrappy charm, she has the chops, too, demonstrating both with outsize presence and poignancy in "Ring of Keys."
Beyond Alison cubed, the production benefits from a strong central performance of Brannen Daugherty, who portrays the father, Bruce Bechdel, with a deft balance of benign fussiness inflected with the longing and shame that are his ultimate undoing. A central moment between daughter and dad is the devastating duet "Telephone Wire," in which the adult Alison revisits her last night with her father. And, on that note, Becca Anderson in the role of the mother, Helen Bechdel, brings the family drama back to its rightful maternal source in a gulp-worthy "Days and Days" that would elicit a "Woot" from Virginia Woolf.
After the show culminated (in an ingenious, synthesized trio of Alisons), I turned on my phone, pulled back into my personal narrative of family members with whom I can't connect. But I did so taking solace in the broader, richer world that the remarkable women who created Fun Home have forged by bringing marginalized stories to the Broadway stage – and to regions like Charleston, thanks to PURE. On the heels of another blockbusting Women's March weekend, I'd recommend you check out Kron's Tony Award acceptance speech for more about how, with Fun Home, our theatrical home has opened in crucial and long-awaited new ways.