Monday, October 2, 2017

Fun Home—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

Mapping Out A Life

This intense musical is based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.  It is directed by Chris Coleman (PCS’s Artistic Director), music direction by Rick Lewis and conductor/pianist, Eric Little.  It is playing at their space in The Armory, 128 W. 11th Ave. (parking can be a problem in this area, so plan your time accordingly), through October 22nd.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-445-3700.

It comes in with a whimper and goes out with a roar.  Those were my immediate thoughts when the play had ended, as it starts out like it might be just another ordinary, forgettable musical about a dysfunctional family, but ends up packing more than a one-two punch to the solar plexus by the time it’s over.  I’m sure everyone looks back on their life at some point, but it seems to be up to the writers to express those experiences on paper.  It is cathartic to examine one’s life, of course, but a writer/artist goes one step further, as when spilling their guts onto a canvas, they are also opening up the veins of others, so that they can emphasize with those situations and know they are not alone.  “And so it goes…” as Vonnegut would say.

Alison (Allison Mickelson) is just such a writer, in actuality, a graphic writer/designer of a novel.  She chooses to write of her growing-up years in PA during the 70’s.  She looks at herself when she was a young, school girl (Aida Valentine), and when she was a college student (Sara Masterson) and those formative years, mostly with her family.  She has a rather conservative mom, Helen (Faith Sandberg) and a dad, Bruce (Robert Mammana), who was a rather “free spirit.”  She, of course, identified more with her dad because of this semi-rebellious nature (what child wouldn’t).  And she also had two brothers, Christian (Karsten George) and John (Theo Curl).

Alison notices, as she’s growing up, that she’s beginning to change in her feelings toward boys and especially, girls.  She does not care for dresses but prefers jeans, likes getting dirty over being clean and proper, prefers alone time than being social, etc.  Only her father seems to sympathize with her, and for good reason, as he has had friends (Joe Knispel) over the years and they seem to disappear for long periods of time together.  It is only when she gets to college and meets Joan (Kristen DiMercurio) that she discovers love and her true self.  But through a tragic end to one of the family, she discovers also the pain of hiding one’s true self to satisfy an unforgiving and ignorant society.

Can’t tell you more without revealing plot devices but would have spent more time on certain songs, as they were not only well written and revealing and also well performed but, for some reason, they weren’t listed!  The best I can do is flounder around a bit and tell you some of the situations.  There is a very upbeat song from the “kids” regarding a commercial for their Dad’s funeral home; Joan has a song about her feelings; there is a song about a “raincoat of love;” Helen has a insightful song about living on Maple Ave.; Alison and her Dad have a touching song regarding telephone wires; and Bruce has a searing solo toward the end.  All of these are powerfully delivered and should be credited!

Coleman has done a marvelous job of connecting stories and characters over the years in a limited space and doesn’t leave us confused as to where and when we are in the story.  And his cast is spot-on, too, as they all are perfect for their roles.  I especially liked the two Alison’s of her youth (Valentine and Masterson), who were both top-notch in singing and acting.  Lewis/Little, too, and their orchestra add to the show’s success.  And the set, by master designer, William Bloodgood, was not only functional for such a complicated story but artistic as well.  Great job!

One might be inclined to say this is not for the young but I would disagree, as that is exactly who should see it, with appropriate guidance from professionals, of course.  True, it is about sensitive issues but it is also about real experiences in Life, too.  This may not only open your eyes but could save lives as well.  A couple of phone numbers that might be helpful are:  a Crisis Line at 503-988-4888 and a Gender identity line at 503-872-9664.

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you. 

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