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"Fun Home," show #845

It’s not often a graphic novel-memoir gets the stage adaptation treatment, let alone a musical stage adaptation, let alone a Tony-winning musical stage adaptation. However, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—a book which sits atop my treasured graphic novels-floating bookshelf--provided perfect fodder for Lisa Kron (Book/Lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (Music) to bring to stage. This show has made its way to San Jose’s also treasured City Lights Theater Company, and for good reason: they know how to do shows like this justice. Last week’s opening night performance proved how a theatre company, with the right cast, team, and crew can nail the complexities of the script and score without over-complicating the production.

(Front Row, L to R: Emily Asheghian (John), Penelope DaSilva (Small Alison), Eli Asheghian (Christian), Top Row, L to R: Caitlin Papp (Helen), Mike Rhone (Bruce); Photo credit: Christian Pizzirani)

Bruce and Helen are head of the Bechdel family, where Bruce is a multi-hyphenate man of interests and careers while Helen mothers, plays piano, and does community theatre. Bruce runs the family funeral home, teaches high school English, has a passion for home projects and historical architecture, and is also a closeted-gay man and pursuer of unsuspecting younger men. The three children, John, Christian, and the story’s central figure/narrator/illustrator, Alison, are affected, both artistically and negatively, by Bruce’s expectations and frustrations. Supporting the family dynamic are eventual-college girlfriend-to-Alison, Joan, and jack-of-all-trades in terms of object of lust for Bruce and charismatic singer, Mark/Roy. The most-genius device the creative team made was making Alison into three ages, as a Small, Medium, and Adult. This allows the audience to see, both in real-time and reflection, how Bruce and Helen’s parenting affected her from adolescence through her adult cartoonist career.

(Jessica Whittemore (Adult Alison) and Mike Rhone (Bruce); Photo credit: Christian Pizzirani)

Mike Rhone and Caitlin Papp deliver dynamic performances as Bruce and Helen, respectively, sharply delineating the couple’s utter lack of chemistry. To be sure, with Bruce having this secret-everyone-knows weighing on him, Rhone grounds his frustrations and outbursts in this hiding, while Papp gives as much emotionally driven reacting as she does acting. The couple has one source of pure joy, which is the few times they get to bond with Alison. Rhone and Papp, at no point of discrepancy, are equally, fully focused on giving their kids the best chance at succeeding at life they can. Sure, Bruce and Helen have differing views on how to best support their kids, but the passion is there. Rhone delivers his “Edges of the World” with reflective contemplation, deep nuance, and vocals which soar to Bruce’s emotional climax that the audience is made aware will eventually happen. Simple is best with this number, and director Lisa Mallette stages it with exquisite truth. Papp shines in her “Days and Days,” allowing the audience to see Helen’s entire life of regret show nakedly in front of Adult Alison and herself.

(Caitlin Papp (Helen) and Alexandra Ornes (Medium Alison); Photo credit: Christian Pizzirani)

Jessica Whittemore, Alexandra Ornes, and Penelope DaSilva are dynamite as the Adult, Medium, and Small Alisons, respectively. DaSilva is a triumph of youth acting and singing on stage, entering the play’s opening number, “It All Comes Back (Opening),” with urgency and natural command. Possessing a stage-based maturity beyond her years, DaSilva holds her own among the veterans in the cast, especially in her turn at “Ring of Keys.” Ornes has sublime chemistry opposite Alycia Adame’s hilarious, maternally-inclined, intelligent Joan, and an organically developed awkwardness as Medium Alison goes through the college-aged discomfort of figuring out her sexuality. Adame’s “Changing My Major” is full of emotional depth and musical comedy. Whittemore, much like Papp—like stage mother like stage daughter?—gives a whole emotionally based journey whether acting or reacting. Because Alison is nearly always on stage in the intermission-less musical, we always see her journey developing. Whittemore’s glimmering vocals are perfectly suited for “Maps,” a tender moment of a duet opposite Rhone’s Bruce, and “Telephone Wires” gives Whittemore the opportunity to showcase the in-song mental wrestling match Alison is having with her attempt to engage in *the* conversation with Bruce she’s been longing to have. Rhone’s Bruce reciprocates with the paternal shell most fathers have in giving mere glances of the affection he holds towards his newly-out daughter while still being his true self. The three Alisons complete the journey of adolescence to adulthood in the superbly glistening harmonies of “Flying Away (Finale),” staged with visual excitement by Mallette and choreographer/assistant director Noelle GM Gibbs.

(Jessica Whittemore (Adult Alison), Alexandra Ornes (Medium Alison), Penelope DaSilva (Small Alison); Photo credit: Christian Pizzirani)

Wrapping up the supporting cast is charismatic chameleon Arturo Montes as Roy/Mark, whose vocal leading of “Raincoat of Love” makes for a fun romp. Both Eli and Emily Asheghian, as Christian and John, respectively, team up with DaSilva for superbly enjoyable "Come to the Fun Home." Technically, Ron Gasparinetti’s set design stays true to form in having a beautiful Bechdel Family Home be present for the audience to see and live in for a while, and Spenser Matubang’s lighting design is instantly noticeable—in a good way—with how well Mallette and Gibbs's moods and stage pictures are presented on the boards. Samuel Cisneros leads a swell band, giving Tesori’s score energy and intimacy accompanying the cast’s outstanding vocals.

(Jessica Whittemore (Adult Alison); Photo credit: Christian Pizzirani)

Fun Home will challenge, compel, and entertain you, and honestly, you can’t expect that from many musicals nowadays. The moment you stop reading this review I implore you to purchase your ticket and go pay a visit to the Fun Home because musical theatre like this is not done often enough. Go, go see this show!

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