Fun Home: talent galore—and lesbians centre stage

The Arts Club is producing Fun Home, the musical.

Alison times three: Sara-Jeanne Hosie, Jamie MacLean, and Kelli Ogmundson play the same character at different ages in Fun Home. (Photo by David Cooper)

It’s subtle, which is great. It’s queer, which is welcome. It’s also narratively unsurprising. But it’s still the best show in town.

The musical Fun Home is based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. In both, Bechdel, who is lesbian, struggles to understand her relationship with her gay father Bruce, who committed suicide.

The musical is a memory play and, as in memory, several realities coexist. Alison is 43, the same age her dad was when he killed himself. She watches ten-year-old Small Alison as Bruce bullies her into being more girly and wearing her barrette. And she stands guard over Medium Alison as she goes away to college, comes out, and falls in love with a woman named Joan.

Jaime MacLean, who’s playing Small Alison, is a small miracle. Not only does she toss off composer Jeanine Tesori’s tricky musical lines as confidently as if she were reciting nursery rhymes, she knows what the hell she’s singing about.

In “Ring of Keys”, for instance, Small Alison spots a butch delivery woman and instantly knows that they have something in common: “Your swagger and your bearing/And the just right clothes you’re wearing…It’s probably conceited to say/But I think we’re alike in a certain way.” MacLean catches all of the nuance in this number: the thrill of seeing someone who finally—finally!—reflects you back to yourself, and the nascent understanding of sexuality within that excitement. That’s a lot for a young actor to convey.

Kelli Ogmundson is also a complete frickin’ knockout as Medium Alison. Her comic timing is superb—when she pretends to be looking for the German Club rather than the Gay Club at university, for instance. And she brings such rumpled sweetness to her characterization that it’s impossible not to adore her as she clumsily tears her clothes off to have sex with Joan.

Think about that for a minute: Fun Home is a mainstream entertainment in which one young lesbian jumps another young lesbian on-stage and the delighted audience collectively sighs, “Oh, puppy!” The lyrics to the song Medium Alison is singing help to get us there, of course: “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan/With a minor in kissing Joan.”

In years to come, Fun Home may emerge as a pivotal creation in terms of queer representation in popular entertainment. In Fun Home, we’re moving ahead: Medium Alison’s lust and identity are accepted and celebrated. At the same time, homosexuality is problematic (and, as in many earlier plays, problematized): Bruce’s self-loathing destroys him.

Playing Bruce, the most complex role in Fun Home, Eric Craig is stellar. He has a lovely tenor. More importantly, he doesn’t back away from Bruce’s inadequacies: the guy is domineering and self-involved as well as loving and terrified.

Crucially, as written, the least interesting major character is Alison. Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who’s playing Alison here, is one of the most likeable performers in the country. And she has a marvelously warm voice: when she sings, you just know she’s a nice person. That charm can’t compensate for the basic structural flaw, though: it’s not clear what the stakes are in Alison’s story. Why does she have to sort though her relationship with her father right now? Yes, she’s the same age as her dad was when he died, but that’s a superficial answer. If she doesn’t figure out her relationship with Bruce, what will happen? And what’s the impact of her discoveries as she proceeds? Because Lisa Kron’s book for Fun Home doesn’t provide adequate answers to these questions, it feels hollow sometimes.

As an audience member, I felt I needed more, especially since Fun Home lets us know early on that Bruce is going to kill himself; we know where this is going.

Director Lois Anderson has made one casting error in this production, too: Nick Fontaine plays four young objects of Bruce’s desire, but he doesn’t differentiate them well. I thought there were two lads—maybe. And, whatever Fontaine is doing, it’s superficial.

Fortunately, there are other strengths, including Sara Vickruck’s attentive, sexy Joan.

And the physical production is good-looking. In Amir Ofek’s set, the playing area is vast, which emphasizes the chilly vacancy of the Bechdel home. And Amy McDougall’s costumes are spot-on in terms of the periods and very rewarding aesthetically. She starts with a baseline of dusty rose and plays all sorts of variations on that reddish theme—from the bright pink stripes and paisleys of the pop parody “Raincoat of Love” to the conservatively sissy dull purple of Bruce’s dress shirt.

For me, the most rewarding thing about Fun Home is that it has a very appealing lesbian centre stage and her story is told with subtlety, if not a lot of momentum.

FUN HOME Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. An Arts Club production directed by Lois Anderson at the Granville Island Stage on Tuesday, February 20. Continues until March 10.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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