REVIEW: Fun Home

It’s about time.

When this show won its Tony Award for Best Musical in 2016, I knew it was one that Ensemble Theatre would try to produce as soon as possible.  It’s edgy enough, with material that explores sexual identity, family relationships, grief, and love.  It’s the right sized cast for the ETC stage.  The music is by the same composer as the musical “Violet,” which ETC has done twice now.  So, it was a lock once the rights were available.

“Fun Home” is based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, in which she tells the story about her family, the family business, and her own coming out story.  It’s shocking at times, and sad, too.  But there are some lighter moments that help break up the melancholy.

And so, it’s about time.  It’s about time that this show appeared on the ETC stage.  But there are other overdue firsts.

Like the return to Cincinnati of Max Meyers.  I first saw him, as a young teenager, in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at the Covedale where he held his own on stage with some of my favorite actors.  Off to NYC he went for school and he’s been working all over the country until his return home.  He’s a tour de force, playing multiple characters in this production each with their own nuance.  What a talented actor he was way back then and what a tremendous professional he is now.

It’s also about time that Sara Mackie (“Helen Bechdel”) is able to shine in the kind of role she’s perfect for.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, she’s had wonderful turns in other productions on the ETC stage.  Her comedic stylings in the family holiday musicals are terrific.  She was great in “Hands on a Hardbody.” I enjoyed her dramatic work in “Other Desert Cities.”  She’s had tremendous roles in Dayton at Human Race Theatre.  And in way-too-under-the-radar “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune,” she was just magnificent.  But as the mother of our leading lady in “Fun Home,” Mackie soars.  She’s subtle.  Loving, but reserved.  Beaten down and battered by her relationship, fearful for her children’s future, she tries to protect them by maintaining a quiet strength. And distance.  But her musical number “Days and Days” belies the passionate woman in need of catharsis.  Mackie is just exquisite – and the opening night audience offered a well deserved extended applause break in appreciation.

It’s also about time that we welcome Emily Fink, recent CCM graduate, back on stage in Cincinnati.  Fink might be one of the best overall performers I’ve ever seen; her future is unlimited.  Just watch how magnificently she transforms as “Middle Alison,” from shy, confused college student on her way to self-realization in this show.  My favorite musical number is “Changing My Major,” and it’s because of Fink.  Watch out for her; she will be famous.

There’s not a weak link in this cast. When working with children, you often wonder if they’ll drag down an otherwise great production.  But Henry Weghorst, Espen Wells-Jordan, and especially McKenna James Farmer all keep up with their adult counterparts amazingly well.  Patti James, the choreographer of this show, must have had a blast with them as they learned to dance to “Come to the Fun Home.”  Farmer is wise way beyond her years and already has a professional presence.

Charlie Clark is so good you almost don’t notice.  I mean, is there anything he cannot do?  A chameleon of a performer, he disappears into his roles and becomes the character so fully that its difficult to critique him.  He finds the balance between charming and tortured as “Bruce Bechdel.”  Natalie Bird, who’s on stage the entire show, keeps things glued together and Jude Walker as “Joan” shines brightly.

The set and lights by Brian c. Mehring, as one would expect, are stunning.  The turntable is used judiciously, the small set pieces that pop out help move the story where it needs to go geographically and linearly.  Shannon Rae Lutz’s prop work is unparalleled.  Reba Senske’s costumes are beautiful and accentuate each character.  This is a memory play, but it’s easy enough to follow the timeline thanks to the direction of D. Lynn Myers.  Steve Goers leads a terrific band, though I do hope the sound can even out.  It was difficult to hear many of the lyrics in the show, which was frustrating at times.

It’s about time ETC produced this show.  In a world where people are still arguing about equality, gender, mental health, sexuality, and love we need timely stories like “Fun Home.”  We need to humanize these issues. We need to put actual faces with the feelings, identities into our discussions.  We need to be challenged. We need to know that as unique as Alison’s story is, the themes are universal.

It’s about time.

FUN HOME runs through September 28th at Ensemble Theatre in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati.  Tickets are more information can be found here.  Opening night was sold out; do not wait to get your tickets. Do not miss this show.