Sunday, October 16, 2022

Review of "Fun Home" - TheaterWorks Hartford

Fun Home, the award-winning Broadway musical, is receiving an impressive rendering at TheaterWorks Hartford.  The drama is full of disquietude, joy, and heartfelt emotion.  The show has been extended until November 6.

The musical is based on the 2006 graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel.  It is a coming of age story, centering on the author’s childhood years through her college days.  The show focuses on her sexual awakening as a gay young woman and her complicated relationship with her closeted gay father and repressed mother.
Sarah Beth Pfeifer - Photo by Mike Marques

The Bechdel family is a quirky group.  Dad (Aaron Lazar) is opinionated and hot-tempered.  In the small Pennsylvania town where the family resides, he runs the area funeral home, restores old houses, and is a high school English teacher.  Mom (Christiane Noll) is quiet, thoughtful and undemonstrative.  She is involved in community theater, taking care of the family of five, and living a lie.  The couple’s three children, two boys, Christian (Myles Low) and John (Sam Duncan), and a girl, Alison (played at times by Skylar Lynn Matthews, Julia Nightingale, and Sarah Beth Pfeifer), grow up within this idiosyncratic world.  

The focus is on Alison as she maneuvers through the touchpoints of her life.  She is played by three very talented actresses, at pivotal times in her life—as a young tween, an Oberlin College undergraduate, and as a 43 year old woman. 

The book by Lisa Kron, an award-winning playwright, is tightly structured with well-defined characters lifted from the graphic novel.  The dialogue is expressive and never compromising.  Having the role of Alison played by three different actresses, enables a non-linear approach to the storytelling, which allows for a more expansive and satisfying drama.

The music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron is full of passion, poignancy, and playfulness.  Ms. Tesori has done masterful work over the years with contributions to such divergent musicals as Violet; Caroline, or Change; Thoroughly Modern Millie; and Shrek – the Musical.  With Fun Home, the songs form a cohesive whole.  They are melodic and often introspective as they speak to the family’s life, the anguish Alison faces, and even the fun that can permeate the household.  The musical selections are splendidly wrought under Musical Director Jeff Cox.
Aaron Lazar & Skylar Lynn Matthews - Photo by Mike Marques

The cast of Fun Home sparkles.  Aaron Lazar gives a convincing portrayal of a proud man, nonetheless troubled and conflicted.  The actor handily shifts moods from caring father to belligerent parent to a narcissistic lothario.  He is a living and breathing conundrum.  Christiane Noll, who was cited by the Connecticut Critics Circle for her performance in TheaterWorks Hartford’s 2017 production of Next to Normal, once again demonstrates her acting prowess.  This time, she is more in the background, a woman who’s bottled up frustrations and distress finally explode with the unwavering, angst filled “Days and Days” near the show’s end.

The three actresses that combine to tell the tale of Alison are perfectly cast and furnish standout performances.  Their portrayals are crucial for the musical’s success.  Skylar Lynn Matthews, as the Young Alison, delivers a stunning performance well beyond her years.  She is at times impish, childlike, with a streak of independence and attitude.  Her rendition of “Ring of Keys” is mesmerizing.  Julia Nightingale, the Middle Alison, is the most complex of the trio.  The actress gives an assured and deft portrayal of a young woman whose initial ambivalence and awkwardness blossoms into maturity and self-assuredness.  Sarah Beth Pfeifer, as the older Alison, is an observer and commentator of the tableau being presented in front of her.  The actress is less demonstrative than the other two young women playing Alison.  Ms. Pfeifer’s portrayal finely balances the Alison character within the overall production.
Skylar Lynn Matthews - Photo by Mike Marques

Director Rob Ruggiero has crafted a polished production that is passionate, energized and sensitively mines the emotional depths of the musical.  He skillfully utilizes the small performance space to produce an intimate, yet impactful production.  He intelligently teases out the subtleties and complexities of the show.  The Director is aided by Luke Cantarella’s Scenic Design and Rob Denton’s Lighting.  The scenes, which consist of swiftly changing sets incorporating just one or two pieces of furniture, accentuate the minimalist feel of the production.  The slatted back of the stage referencing the older home where the family resides.  His use of Camilla Tassi’s Projection Design, though, is distracting as scenes are augmented by drawings and snippets of dialogue appearing on the stage walls.  In this case, less would have been better.

Fun Home, a musical well-worth catching, at TheaterWorks Hartford through November 6.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

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