Thursday, September 28, 2017

Fine Local Flavor: Well-Drawn 'Fun Home' Fits Wonderfully in a Smaller House -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Fun Home
Victory Gardens Theatre
at the Biograph, Chicago
Thru November 12

One of my great pleasures in life is traveling to New York City and--along with concerts, ballgames, museums, restaurants, bakeries, parks, historic landmarks, random strolling, etc.--going to Broadway shows in bunches.

I've done so several times this century, and while I've also taken in long-running classics and revivals, I have loved seeing shows such as Avenue Q, Wicked, Spring Awakening, Book of Mormon and many others early in their acclaimed Broadway runs.

A good number of musicals do "tryouts" in Chicago prior to moving to Broadway, and national tours bring almost everything that plays on Broadway to the Windy City not long thereafter. (To wit, this year's big, Tony-winning hit, Dear Evan Hansen, should be in Chicago by the end of 2018.)

Photo Credit on all: Liz Lauren
So it's not like those who don't get to NYC haven't the opportunity to see most of the best new shows, in Chicago or even the suburbs as several local self-producing venues stage recent musicals once they're licensed to go regional (as opposed to touring under the auspices of their original Broadway producers).

Still, I find it notable that since the last time I was in New York in March 2015, the musical Fun Home opened on Broadway, earned 12 Tony Award nominations, won five Tonys including Best New Musical, closed on Broadway, mounted a National Tour--that played Chicago in November 2016 and continued through last month--and is now being produced locally by the Victory Gardens Theater.

That's one of the fastest rides along the theatrical life-cycle I can recall, especially for such an acclaimed show.

But not only is Fun Home a musical that deserves to be seen, it is far better suited for smaller local venues--such as the beautifully renovated Biograph Theater that Victory Gardens calls home--than the cavernous downtown ones that tours typically play.

As per my Broadway in Chicago "Balcony Club" subscription, just 10½ months ago I saw Fun Home from the very upper reaches of the resplendent but vast Oriental Theatre, with a capacity of about 2,250.

Though not quite as much as some reviewers or musicals, I greatly enjoyed it, but in my review surmised that greater intimacy might enhance appreciation. (On Broadway, Fun Home ran in the 776-seat Circle in the Square, where about half the seats bracket the stage.)

In the 299-seat auditorium refurbished some years back for Victory Gardens--within the space where John Dillinger famously saw his last movie--Wednesday night I had a seat in the front row, center.

And while I am still bestowing @@@@1/2 as I did for the touring rendition, the proximity--and a stellar local cast under the direction of the routinely superb Gary Griffin--definitely added potency to an excellent but somewhat downbeat musical that frequently feels like a drama.

Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, Fun Home centers around a 40-something Alison (terrifically embodied here by the consistently stellar Danni Smith) reflecting back on herself in childhood (played by an excellent Stella Rose Hoyt, alternating with Sage Elliott Harper) and as a college freshmen coming to embrace her gayness (Hannah Starr, also superb).

The bulk of the 90-minute show chronicles the past, including dramatized recollections of Alison's dad Bruce (Rob Lindley, who brings a physical and emotional frailty befitting the role), mother Helen (McKinley Carter, who I've often seen and liked) and brothers (Leo Gonzalez and Preetish Chakraborty).

Danielle Davis, as Alison's college girlfriend Joan is also quite good, as is Joe Lino, who plays several different yet similar young men who factor in ways I will leave for you to discover.

Many of the key narrative aspects of Fun Home aren't meant to be secrets--especially as Bechdel's autobiographical account was a best-seller--and most are revealed early on, but I don't see the need to give away much to the uninitiated.  

I will share that "Fun Home" is the kids' shorthand for the Pennsylvania funeral their father runs--along with being a high school English teacher and home restoration aficionado--and their imagining of a Jackson 5esque commercial for it, "Come to the Fun Home," makes for the musical's most ebullient moment.

With book & lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, this is about as far from a "tap dancing, robust chorus and flashy production numbers" Broadway musical as the genre gets.

Which is meant much more a compliment than a criticism, as musical theater should continue to extend its boundaries and--like Next to Normal before it, and seemingly Dear Evan Hanson now, though I've only listened to it--Fun Home offers more dramatic heft and poignancy than most musicals (and several plays, for that matter).

And with Tesori also the composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie and other acclaimed shows, there are several splendid songs, including "Ring of Keys" (wonderfully delivered by Hoyt as Small Alison at the performance I attended), "Changing My Major" (a showpiece for Starr as Medium Alison), "Days and Days" (beautifully wrought by Carter as the steadfast wife and mother) and "Telephone Wire," on which Smith shines as the older Alison late in the show.

But though Fun Home once again moved me considerably--and even more so from a far closer vantage point--its relative sparsity of scintillating showtunes likely helps account for why I love it a bit less than my very favorite musicals.

Having now seen the other nominees for the 2015 Best New Musical Tony Award--An American in Paris, Something Rotten! and The Visit, though only the latter on Broadway--I would concur with it meriting the award, even if I might not against competition from other years.

But it's to the considerable credit of Victory Gardens--long one of Chicago's most storied theater companies but not one I've patronized all that often--that it is not only staging its own production of Fun Home so shortly after the Broadway run and first national tour, but seemingly is doing it every bit as well (as far as I could discern or recall from the Equity tour). a far more intimate and appropriate home.

...with tickets starting at just $29 through the box office and discounts available through HotTix, Goldstar and TodayTix.

As such, whether you unabashedly love musicals or are more typically drawn to dramas, this is a Home I highly recommend you visit.

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