By Dale King
Lake Worth Playhouse has officially opened its 70th season with a probing, thought-provoking production of Fun Home, a true-to-life musical theater adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel memoir of her passionate search to find a connection between her and her deceased father – both of them gay.
With music by Jeanine Tesori and a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, Fun Home was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical. Its cast album received a nomination for 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
The players are equally laden with talent. Lead performers Michael Coppola as Bruce Bechdel and Aaron Bower as his wife, Helen, have extensive vocal and acting capabilities and the children assigned to flesh out the roster of players are firmly schooled in stage work.
Jamie Mattocks, who plays the elder Alison, seems saddled with a role that should demand more of an actress with solid performance chops.
Overall, the production is a well-oiled piece. The music adds depth, humor and poignancy to the action, but spoken words seem to carry the weight of a revelation-sopped production that runs about 100 minutes, with no intermission.
The so-called “non-linear” format is a bit troubling. It often means that the older Alison – a gay character who by mid-life has developed a successful career as a cartoonist but is still trying to establish a decisive connection to her late gay father — appears on stage at the same time as two of her earlier incarnations – the 9-year-old version of Alison and 19-year-old college student Alison.
Director Sabrina Lynn Gore offers a brief explanation of “Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality, her relationship with her closeted gay father and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life.” She noted: “It was the first Broadway musical built around a lesbian protagonist.”
The story is complex but is also a supremely touching one involving a brilliant father who thinks nothing of having affairs with young men, as well as a wife who seems to quietly endure such misbehavior without objection.
It is told in a series of vignettes connected by narration provided by the adult Alison character, who spends much of her time calling for “captions” to drawings she’s making of her childhood – frames important to the advancement of the story.
The play takes place in the family home in a small Pennsylvania town where Alison grew up. The setting is excellently crafted – thanks to the LWP stage crew — perfectly restored to 19th century Victorian standards – apparently at Bruce’s direction. This is where Alison’s parents ran the Bechdel Funeral Home.
In one of the first musical numbers, “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” the family gleefully sings: “Everything is balanced and serene / Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” The image of a picture-perfect family is quickly shattered by Bruce’s quick temper, unpredictable personality and erratic behavior toward his wife and three kids.
Coppola puts his 35 years of stage work to effective use in his role as the brilliant English teacher with an avid interest in literature; an ardent architect; a part-time funeral director and tough father figure. His forays into the world of sexual deviation seem to barely bother him – and draw little attention from others – at least on the surface. Underneath, though, a cauldron is boiling.
Moment by moment, we become aware that his wife knows more and more about his dalliances. But, for the sake of family harmony, she keeps it to herself.
Many of the show’s subjects are dark, from Bruce’s death (apparently a suicide), the cruelty of Bruce’s penchant for getting young, sometimes underage men drunk and seducing them to the heartbreaking way he yells at his wife for causing “his” problems.
Perhaps because of the non-linear timeline, events take place out of order. Teen Alison (Jenna-Brooke Bellinato) becomes fully aware of her lesbian leanings after having sex with a college classmate, Joan (Caroline Dopson). So overjoyed, she sings, “I’m changing my major – to Joan.”
Perhaps the most agonizing tune is Helen’s rendition of “Days and Days,” when she unburdens her grief in a profound catharsis that flips over the positive meaning of lines from the “Maple Avenue” entrance song into horrific laments.
A live, four-piece band (Ryan Crout, Emily Moorehead, Hunter Isbell and Chris Vallone) makes the music real and enduring, adding to the reality of the action. And while the quartet tunefully supports the two-song finale, it seems Alison’s quest for answers about her life and her father is yet to be finished.
Rounding out the cast are dual performers for little Alison, Eden Gross and Kaia Davis, as well as two actors for each of the male child roles, Christian (Ava Anger and Hugh Moss) and John (Violet Segal and Riley Stango).
Fun Home runs through Oct. 16 at the Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth Beach. Tickets can be purchased by calling 561-586-6410 or by visiting www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.