Review: ‘Fun Home’ at the Baltimore Center Stage

“Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue.” With this lyric, the Bechdel family invites the Baltimore Center Stage audience into their home – free of judgment and with all their family dysfunction on full display. Fun Home, the Tony-award-winning musical with music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, and based on Alison Bechdel’s iconic graphic novel is Baltimore Center Stage’s first production for 2019. And it is a strong and impressive launch into the new year.

Jeffry Denman, Liam Hamilton, Michelle Dawson, Molly Lyons, Andrea Prestinario, and Jon Martens in ‘Fun Home.’ Photo by Bill Geenen.

For those unfamiliar, the musical adaptation of Fun Home is told from the perspective of Alison Bechdel. As she works on her graphic novel memoir, vignettes from her past come to life on stage. The narrative structure is not traditional through-line. It is a “highlights” reel of Alison’s history – focused more on the trauma in her life. A total of three actresses portray Alison: the adult narrator of the show, a small Alison for the younger years, and the college-aged medium Alison. Because this is a memory piece, these three versions of Alison interact and reflect to enhance the storyline.

Adult Alison, portrayed by Andrea Prestinario, is a lesbian graphic novelist comfortable in her skin, but haunted by her history. Prestinario has a powerful singing voice. She excels in using facial expressions to convey to the audience what she is thinking even when she doesn’t directly respond to the action in front of her.

Medium Alison is a role that might not appear to be a stand-out. However, with the skillful choices of Laura Darrell, there is little risk of that in this production. Darrell fully embodies the college-aged Alison, and her slow discovery of her sexuality seems to happen before the audience’s eyes. When she sings “Changing My Major” near the mid-way point of the show, it captures both the laugh-out-loud moments and the newly acknowledged self-awareness, to perfection.

From the moment the spotlight hits Molly Lyons as Small Alison, Lyons has the audience in the palm of her hand. The innocence Alison has at that life stage imbues every action. When Lyons takes center stage for the musical’s most iconic song – “Ring of Keys” – the maturity that simmers just below the surface is evident. It is hard to express how authentic Lyons’s embodiment of the youthful Alison feels. After Lyon’s big song, the audience’s cheering response leaves little doubt that she nailed it.

The rest of the Bechdel family – father, mother, and two brothers – are all singly cast. Michelle Dawson’s emotional portrayal of the beleaguered matriarch of the family is appropriately subtle. This shifts in “Days and Days,” her ferocious song late in the show, rebelling against the neglect and lies that have accumulated over years of unhappy marriage. Dawson’s is an award-worthy performance that leaves the audience stunned and sympathetic in equal measure.

Alison’s father, Bruce, is arguably the second most significant character in the show. His life decisions have scarred Alison and have haunted her into adult life. Jeffry Denman most assuredly has the acting skills to bring to life Bruce’s inner struggle. His interpretation of the role makes the bipolar elements – the contrast between Bruce’s angry self and his tender father side – all the scarier to witness. His impressive vocals bring pathos to his big finale, “Edges of the World.”

The other two children in the cast play Alison’s brothers. Both Liam Hamilton and Jon Martens possess the exuberance of youth needed to flesh out these boys. Choreographer Jaclyn Miller added the modern “floss” dance move craze to the “Come to the Fun Home” musical number performed by the three youngest actors. While the dance is undoubtedly anachronistic within the 1970s setting, the audience was delighted and easily overlooked this blending of timelines.

Andrea Prestinario, Molly Lyons, and Jeffry Denman in ‘Fun Home.’ Photo by Bill Geenen.

Two other actors weave themselves into this complex family. Joan, Alison’s girlfriend from college, and one actor, Justin Gregory Lopez, who takes on all the extraneous male roles required. Shannon Tyo, as Joan, makes the most of the only role that doesn’t have a significant solo number. Her support toward Alison as she struggles to come out of the closet rings authentic and touching.

Each of Lopez’s characters is only on stage briefly, but he creates distinction and variation for each of these men. He leads “Raincoat of Love,” a fantasia of imagination that young Alison creates in her mind to avoid hearing her parents argue. Lopez makes this fluff number all the more enjoyable with his performance. In this scene and throughout the show, Costume Designer Karen Perry crafts garments that feel appropriate for the period without them seeming too kitschy.

Director Hana S. Sharif and Assistant Director Tiffany Fulson clearly understand the intimacy necessary for Fun Home to work. The audience must feel a connection to this family so that this closeness can breed empathy. Staged in thrust style, with the audience on three sides, the configuration pulls the audience into the action. The one caveat is that a few scenes appear to be staged more for a proscenium type layout, so the viewing angles from the far sides are not optimal.

Scenic Designer Scott Bradley keeps the distractions to a minimum. He uses a few key pieces of furniture to orient the audience to the Bechdel living room, the funeral parlor, an automobile, and Alison’s dorm room. On the back way of the stage, the art installation starts as a sort of stained-glass backdrop, but it is most useful as a surface for projecting Alison’s sketches at various moments throughout the show. The displays by Hana S. Kim, the projection designer harken to the graphic novel origin of the story and bring a beautiful fluidity to proceedings.

Xavier Pierce handles the lighting requirements, helping to make the show feel like the memory piece that it is. Spotlights, strobe lights, and colors help set the mood for each scene and time-transition. Music Director and Conductor Evan Rees leads his seven-piece orchestra masterfully. The musical moments build from the action on the stage. This group of musicians embrace the challenge and soared.

If you missed seeing Fun Home on Broadway, the Baltimore Center Stage production demonstrates what all the hype was about. This production proves to be in many ways more powerful and intimate. Baltimore Center Stage’s Fun Home is a not-to-be-missed musical journey through the troubled mind of an artistic virtuoso and a revered role model of the LGBTQ+ community.

Running Time: One hour and thirty minutes, with no intermission.

Fun Home plays through February 24, 2019, at Baltimore Center Stage – 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, Maryland. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.

Scenic Design by Scott Bradley; Lighting Design by Xavier Pierce; Projection Design by Hana S. Kim; music director and conductor by Evan Rees; Choreography by Jaclyn Miller; Costume Design by Karen Perry; and Sound Design by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts.