The Santa Fe Playhouse is taking a lot of risks this year, not the least of which is presenting plays that, while critically acclaimed, not everyone has necessarily heard of. Recognition is a huge part of audience draw in the theater world, with advance sales for "oh-I-love-that-one" shows like The Importance of Being Earnest last year or 2017's Cabaret depended upon to buoy seasons that otherwise may not have the same household-name quality.
This year doesn't feature a single show that would cause your average theater-goer to gasp. Risky move.
The playhouse's first two offerings, the grossly under-recognized Trevor and last month's complex Marjorie Prime, are now followed by the musical Fun Home. If you didn't gasp when you heard the title, you should have. And, truth be told, if you don't rush to buy your ticket ASAP, you likely won't get one.
It's the based-on-a-true-story, Tony-winning piece by Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori and Alison Bechdel about Bechdel's unique upbringing, coming-of-age and coming-out in college, and the fallout from her father's secret life and subsequent suicide. If it sounds heavy, it doesn't come across that way—any intense topics are dealt with in delicate poignancy rather than bludgeoning misery. A huge cast features three Alisons (small, medium and adult) as we travel through time in her memories, told through a graphic novel that Adult Alison is writing like an omniscient narrator.
Fun Home functions like a clown car in every way. Between massive set pieces (think a two-story house, an entire dang casket and a breakfront that is actually a murphy bed), an eight-piece onstage orchestra hidden behind scrims, dozens of costumes including Partridge Family-esque performance outfits, a comparatively huge cast (the backstage really isn't that big) and themes that would make any director's head spin, the stage itself and ideology of the play alike virtually explode in action and excitement.
Side note: For more than two years now I've been sitting in the corner, rubbing my hands in a sinister manner, waiting for playhouse Artistic Director Vaughn Irving to screw something up. But he directed this play, and dammit if he didn't pull it all off with the aid of this remarkable cast and crew. My God. I'm kinda mad about it.
The very start of the show, I'll admit, had me a little hesitant. It took the actors a little bit to settle into their roles and voices, as if they were nervous to sing too loud in such a small theater. The three Bechdel children, Small Alison (Charlotte Carter—more on her later), Christian (Teagan Wetzel) and John (Michael Blessing), take a second to warm up, but once they do, they're a fantastic little trio that's quite believable as siblings. We learn early on that their father Bruce (Brent Black) is a closeted gay man and that his marriage with mother Helen is not going too great, understandably (that's Karen Ryan, who I'm thrilled to see in another role she seems comfortable in—Marjorie Prime was shaky, but here she rocks the same confidence she showed as the sinister Fraulein Kost in Cabaret).
We also immediately meet handyman Roy, played by Koppany Pusztai, making his Playhouse debut, and who is young and supple and charming and exactly who you think he is, with regards to this family's story. (Pusztai plays a number of roles throughout the show, most of which are of a similar ilk, making the ensemble nature of his appearance more easily understood.) Pusztai's tension with Black is positively exciting, and Black's masterful dance between self-loathing bad-choice-making deviant and fun-loving and goofy dad expertly complements the rest of the cast's attempts at normalcy.
We follow Alison to college, where an awkward but adorable Medium Alison is played by Nadine Pineda, whose evolution onstage is as thrilling as it is palpable. She meets Joan (the impeccable Mariah Olesen), and … well, as with Roy, you get the picture.
The whole shebang is narrated by Adult Alison, portrayed by playhouse newcomer MJ Sea. And, going back to gasp-inducing names, I can tell you unequivocally that all three Alisons will now be those for me. Sea's crystalline tones, unshakeable confidence and quiet turmoil brought the audience out of their seats. Pineda shifted so beautifully from blundering homo-curious college freshman to emotionally mature daughter of damaged people that she could evoke laughs and tears from the same sentence.
And as for Carter—wow. Wow, wow, wow. It feels inappropriate to curse with regards to the performance of a 13-year-old, so I'll just say "holy shnikes!" To be fair, Carter's performance was solid throughout but didn't necessarily evoke such a passionate response—until the second half of the play, that is. And then "Ring of Keys" happens. And I'm getting goosebumps all over again just thinking of the masterful performance, especially from a performer so young.
But this musical depends so much on tension and self-discovery that it's gotta be kept new as long as possible—so that's all I'll tell you. No spoilers.
Director Irving was right to tap the infallible Sarah Runyan as his stage manager; I cannot picture anyone else in town handling a show this intense and complicated from behind the scenes, and that tight backstage ship is evident onstage. Zoe Burke's costumes are a feat and a half, and that's one hell of a set from David Carter and Heather Campbell. Kudos all around on the tech side, if numbers with more than two folks singing did start to sound a bit muddy (small house problems, maybe?). By the way, get ready for a nonstop ride: There's no intermission in the 90-ish minute performance.
For an intensely emotional show so centered on the people we wish we were, or the people we are but feel we somehow can't be, with the recurring theme of "I want" repeated by so many actors, and such a physical hurt of yearning extending off the stage and into our chest cavities, Fun Home is fantastically uplifting. The last bit practically brings me to tears again now.
Is this review maudlin? Maybe. Am I a bit silly to be starstruck by people I've seen onstage a thousand times before? Perhaps.
But also, is Fun Home the best show you'll see this year? Probably. It's selling out like wildfire, and for good reason. Don't wait to get a seat.