To mark its 10th season, Forward Theater is presenting its first musical; the award-winning show Fun Home, which runs in Overture’s Playhouse through Nov. 25. In her director’s notes, Forward’s artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray stated that it was a long-term goal, but she had been waiting for just the right musical for the company to produce. As the standing-ovation crowd on the Nov. 3 performance can attest, she found it, and it was worth the wait. Fun Home is the perfect size for the space and the company. It showcases superlative performances from Wisconsin actors, and it tells an important story that is utterly unique.
Based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, the groundbreaking piece is an eloquent, irreverent, painfully authentic story about extreme family dysfunction, homosexuality, suicide and growing up in a funeral home. This is not your mom’s Rodgers and Hammerstein night at the theater. Rest assured, there are love stories and dance numbers; there are gorgeous songs and uplifting messages. But the journey, like its protagonist, is unorthodox. And for every note of hope there is a deep cut of frustration and pain.
Tony winner Karen Olivo plays the lead role of adult Alison, but Fun Home is not a star vehicle — it is a true ensemble piece. Not surprisingly, even when she’s not in the spotlight, Olivo is astonishing as the 40-something who is using art to come to terms with her difficult past. In the original production adult Alison stayed firmly behind her drafting table, watching the action unfold onstage along with the audience. In this production the artist is an active guide of the experience. Intensely curious and surprisingly vulnerable, she carefully follows her memories around the stage, picking up books and other objects from a long-lost dorm room, studying the expressions of the participants in the scene so she can draw them accurately.
Olivo’s transformation from a stunningly beautiful cisgender female to a butch lesbian is helped by a adding pair of heavy glasses, sweeping her long hair back into a braid, and outfitting her in a smart costume design by Scott Rött — an oxford shirt and straight cut trousers that completely mask her curves. Olivo’s singing voice, however, is delightfully unaltered. As adult Alison relives an excruciating car ride with her father, desperate to find a connection, Olivo’s “Telephone Wire,” sounds like a heart breaking into pieces.
The other Alisons are equally remarkable. Rachael Zientek is radiant as the college version, fumbling through her first same-sex relationship and her new identity. Hair braided, dressed in boxy jeans and flannel shirts, Zientek embodies an Alison whose emotions keep overflowing, while her relationship with her parents changes forever. Her face glows with the pure joy and wonder that also fills her strong singing voice as she proclaims her love to Joan, in “Changing My Major.” In the process of coming out, Zientek has some of the funniest and the most poignant moments of the show, both of which she handles with a light touch and a full heart.
Chantae Miller is luminous as the outspoken and bright-eyed girl who yearns for her father’s attention and has not yet learned to be afraid to fly. Although Miller is a few years older than her character, she effortlessly captures the push-pull of childhood when kids are balancing their need for independence with the need for approval from their parents. Singing about the family’s funeral home, escaping into her own world when her parents are bickering, Miller shows us the resilience of young people in the face of daily disappointments. Her rendition of “Ring of Keys” — one of the most beautiful songs in a show jam-packed with them — completely captures the surprise and comfort of an awakening that will guide Alison for the rest of her life.
Matt Daniels has the most difficult role in the show — that of Alison’s closeted, deeply troubled, perfectionist father. As written, Bruce Bechdel is easy to understand but very hard to like. His mood swings rule the family, his outbursts keep his wife and children constantly on edge and his inability to accept his own sexuality bleeds into disapproval of everyone else. Daniels leans into these sharp edges, playing Bruce with a self-conscious nasal voice and a self-loathing that has congealed over many years. His affection for Alison peeks through briefly, but Bruce’s only moment of real honesty in the production is during his tormented final song, “Edges of the World.” Although Daniels’s singing voice is not as strong as those of the Alisons, he nails his last piece with raw emotional intensity.
As Helen, Clare Arena Haden pours her elegant soprano into a damaged mother and exasperated wife. Consoling herself with music, Haden plays the piano as a shelter from the dysfunctional family and the painful situation she cannot fix. Her “Days and Days” is a delicate mix of longing and anger with the killer admonition to her daughter, “Don’t you come back here. I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me.”
In a variety of key supporting roles, Andy White creates surprisingly well-rounded characters in very small snippets of scenes. As Roy the handyman, who is both the kids’ favorite babysitter and Bruce’s latest conquest, White infuses the part with both palpable sexual heat and bemusement, as the powerful one in the relationship. He also lights up the stage as the David Cassidy/Partridge family look-alike during the relentlessly bouncy “Raincoat of Love.”
The only part of the show that underwhelms is the choreography by Maureen Janson. There aren’t many full-on production numbers, which is just as well, since the energy drains out of the small cast as soon as dance combinations begin. As John, little Donovan Lonsdale gets points for cuteness but most of the musical actually works better when the actors are still.
The smart, multi-layered set by Keith Pitts is a terrific device for this story that catches small moments in comic book frames. The soaring proscenium arch is decorated with William Morris-esque wallpaper — the same historic covering that Robert points out to visitors when he talks about restoring his precious house. And the glass panels, reminiscent of leaded glass windows in historic homes, first function as doors, ushering the audience in to the Bechdels’ home. Then they are tightly spotlighted as cartoon panels in Alison’s head, as she tries to put images of her childhood in order. As if looking in an endless mirror, a smaller version of the wallpapered arch is repeated in the background again and again, echoing the truism Alison discovers — that perspective is a tricky thing.
Inventive lighting by Jason Fassl visually frames the action in comic book squares. Spotlights from above seem to freeze and confine the action at the start and end of scenes. His unrelenting light on Bruce during his final breakdown intensifies the character’s pain at being exposed. In the finale, he floods his stage with warm tones as the Alisons sift through all the memories looking for the bright ones.
All this adds up to a breathtaking Wisconsin premiere of Fun Home celebrating Forward’s first decade while also celebrating love, in all its forms. Don’t miss it.