On stage at Victory Gardens Theater, Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori — whose eclectic musical credits include “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Shrek,” and “Caroline, or Change,” to the 2015 Tony Award-winner “Fun Home” — spoke frankly and eloquently about her work.
Then, in a final burst of self-revelation, she told of growing up on Long Island as one of four daughters, with a doctor-father who subjected her to psychological abuse.
On Wednesday night, watching the altogether-brilliant Chicago premiere of “Fun Home” on that same stage, a similar feverish sense of memory was given full force by a dazzling, perfectly chosen cast under the fierce and fiery direction of Gary Griffin.
Arriving about a year after the national touring company of the show played here in a production that left me somewhat underwhelmed, this one blew the lid off the show. The relative intimacy of the Victory Gardens stage only added to the impact.
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Run time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Inspired by Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir — and featuring impassioned, almost operatic music by Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron that possess the depth and specificity of the finest novel writer —”Fun Home” is a devastating tale of family dysfunction. But it also is an homage to the possibility that art and time can bring both understanding and forgiveness, perhaps even a degree of happiness.
At the center of the story, Bechdel is captured at three stages in her life — as a child (by the remarkable fifth-grader Stella Rose Hoyt), as a first-year student at Oberlin College (Hannah Starr) and as a fortysomething adult (Danni Smith) who has become a successful cartoonist/graphic novelist and serves as the show’s narrator/guide.
We see Alison growing up in a house in rural Pennsylvania where her father Bruce (Rob Lindley) runs a funeral home, teaches English at the local high school and spends most of his time and money obsessively renovating their house, which he has turned into something of an Edwardian museum.
His wife Helen (McKinley Carter) is a gifted local actress and pianist who cares for Alison and her two brothers (played by the delightful Preetish Chakraborty and Leo Gonzalez) and lives, along with everyone else in the household, in a monumental and long-term state of denial.
The surface beauty of the Bechdels’ home camouflages the chaos of its inhabitants, for Bruce is a somewhat closeted homosexual who picks up under-age boys and attractive former students (all played by Joe Lino) and somehow has avoided the full force of the law. The Addams Family this most definitely is not.
Alison, who craves her father’s love and attention but rarely gets it in a satisfying way, senses she is a lesbian from a very early age (though she doesn’t know the term) and comes out only when she meets her first lover, Joan (Danielle Davis), at college. Not long after Alison discloses her true identity to her parents (by letter), her father throws himself in front of a bus in what is clearly an act of suicide that has more to do with how he has denied his own identity than with anything else.
Griffin’s choice of actors is flawless. Smith is tough yet just vulnerable enough as the artist still coming to terms with her family. Lindley, who gives a chilling rendition of “Edges of the World,” is marvelously volatile as a man who finally implodes. Carter is beyond breathtaking in her performance of the aria-like “Days and Days.” Starr could not be more vulnerable and beguiling as she captures the euphoria of a first sexual encounter in “Changing My Major.” And Hoyt is simply uncanny in her Broadway level mastery of every aspect of her performance, from her take on the show’s iconic song “Ring of Keys” to her hilarious collaboration with her brothers in “Come to the Fun Home.”
“Fun Home” has a number of musical theater “cousins” these days, from “Evan Hanson” to “Trevor,” all exploring issues of youthful angst and matters of sexuality and identity. But as Tolstoy told us back in the 1870s, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”