Some musicals are made big from the get-go. Others have bigness thrust upon them.
Fun Home, the memory play-with-songs spun from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 comic book memoir of growing up gay in West Pennsylvania, feels like a chamber musical writ large.
Fun Home’s reputation was made on its Broadway season staged at New York City’s The Circle in the Square. Performed in the round, it was an intimate spectacle that brought its audience in close.
This Sydney Theatre Company/Melbourne Theatre Company co-production, presented in a conventional theatre and with a huge revolving set, holds viewers at more of an arm’s length. Yet it remains a genuinely touching experience, a show that reaches out and draws you in.
The narrative perspective is that of Bechdel, 43 years old and a graphic artist. She pilots the show back to the rambling family home of her childhood, a place governed by the moods of her mercurial dad, Bruce (Adam Murphy), a heritage architecture wonk and part-time funeral director.
Returning to scenes of her youth, the emotionally blocked Alison seeks answers to key questions – not least to those surrounding Bruce’s suicide. Alison is now as old as her dad ever got to be.
“There’s you and there’s me,” she sings (in It All Comes Back). “But now I’m the one who’s forty-three /And stuck / I can’t find my way through! Just like you / Am I just like you?”
The show (book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori) portrays Alison at three stages in her life. Lucy Maunder is present day Alison, wary of the past and the influence of her father yet yearning for closure.
Maggie McKenna is Alison the gawky college freshman navigating her coming out.
And then there’s the spirited tween Alison (played by the very talented Mia Honeysett on opening night), who bridles against wearing dresses and is forever changed by a glancing encounter with a butch lesbian delivery driver (described in one Fun Home’s best songs, Ring of Keys).
The journey back in time has its upbeat moments (when young Alison and her siblings record a Jackson 5-style commercial for the family funeral home business, for example) but mostly it is dominated by her father’s emotional switchbacks and the unspoken tensions between Bruce and his playwright wife Helen (Marina Prior).
In a small town, secrets don’t stay that way for very long and Bruce’s ill-judged sexual encounters with much younger men are as dangerous to the family’s position as they are emotionally corrosive. Bruce isn’t only a funeral home director. He’s also the high school English teacher.
Directed by Dean Bryant, this is a grand and graceful staging. Alicia Clements’ handsome set (designed with the assistance of Isabel Hudson) towers over the characters in much the same way Bruce’s dispositions dominate the life of his family.
Bryant has cast the piece flawlessly. Maunder perfectly balances the older Alison’s sardonic humour with a hunger for an understanding of the father she lost and the person she is.
McKenna – who made a notable debut in the title role of Muriel’s Wedding on this stage in 2017 – is tremendously appealing once again as the student Alison develops her first college crush (on Emily Havea’s spunky Joan, one of the big wheels of the college’s Gay Union). She is the one you root for. You can’t help but be won over by her delirious Changing My Major (to sex with Joan, that is).
Murphy is magnetic as Bruce, a charming man at times but also capable of rash acts of selfishness, neglect and self-destructiveness. We are given many reasons to dislike him but Murphy’s sympathetic portrayal makes him an enjoyably complex character.
Prior is excellent in the comparatively underwritten role of Helen. Her feature song, Day and Days, reveals the price she has paid to maintain her dignity.
Ryan Gonzalez brings individual personality to the young men – the yard guy, high school boys – Bruce becomes fixated with.
The score – a winning mix of soaring Broadway pop song-direct is smartly played by an off stage seven-piece under musical director Carmel Dean. Songs are made to seem like natural eruptions of emotion.
In a year of fine musicals – some new, some deservedly revived – this is a stand-out.