The first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian lead finds a Utah stage

Salt Lake Acting Company falls in love with the ‘beautifully crafted’ Tony Award-winning ‘Fun Home,’ based on Alison Bechdel’s cult-favorite graphic novel.

1. (Courtesy photograph by dav.d daniels of dav.d photography) | Topher Rasmussen, Natalia Bingham, Oliver Kokai-Means, Matthew Rees, Ashley Wilkinson and Benjamin Henderson in Salt Lake Acting Company's "Fun Home."

Everything about the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home” — playing April 6 through May 13 in a regional premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company — sets it apart from the usual Broadway theatrical spectacle.

The musical is a memory play inspired by an unlikely source: Alison Bechdel’s best-selling, pioneering 2006 graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” with its revealing subtitle: “A Family Tragicomic.”

It’s thought to be the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian lead character. But even more spectacular than that, says director Jason Bowcutt, it’s a “beautifully crafted” story.

(Courtesy photograph by dav.d daniels of dav.d photography) | Child actors — Ava Hoekstra, Matthew Rees, Presley Caywood, Jack Sarfati, Natalia Bingham and Oliver Kokai-Means — in the cast of the musical "Fun Home."

The musical has deep Utah roots, as it was developed at Sundance Theatre Labs in 2012 and 2013, just the most recent Sundance project to be produced at a Utah theater company. (Others include SLAC’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” Plan-B Theatre’s “The Laramie Project” and “The Tricky Part,” and Pioneer Theatre Company’s “The Light in the Piazza”).

“Fun Home” explores Alison’s memories of growing up in the family’s funeral home business. The musical explores the graphic artist’s vexed relationship with her father, a teacher, who is devoted to restoring the family’s Victorian home on Maple Avenue. It’s only after she comes out to her parents and, just months later, her father’s sudden death — was it an accident or suicide? — that she realizes he had long struggled with his own sexuality.

It’s the voice in Bechdel’s captions, “erudite, wry and aching — the voice of a truth-seeker,” that brings to life the character of Alison in the musical, writes playwright Lisa Kron in the script’s foreword.

(Courtesy image) | A page depicting a childhood memory of Alison Bechdel and her father, Bruce, in the graphic artist's memoir, "Fun Home."

(Courtesy photography by dav.d daniels of dav.d photography) | Benjamin Henderson and Natalia Bingham in rehearsal for "Fun Home," recreating a childhood scene from Alison Bechdal's graphic novel, "Fun Home."

The playwright (“Well”) and composer Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change” and the musical “Shrek”) became the first female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2015. (As well as four other Tonys, including Best Musical.)

The character of Alison (Shawnee Kennington) draws memories of her past, which prompts the stories of Medium Alison (Hailee Olenberger), a college student, and Small Alison, a young girl (Ava Hoekstra, Natalia Bingham and Presley Caywood). “The past always understands itself to be the present,” Kron writes. “Every character in this piece is moving earnestly forward at all times into an unknown and unknowable future.”

(Courtesy photograph by dav.d daniels of dav.d photography) | Actors Ava Hoekstra, Presley Caywood and Natalia Bingham who share the role of Small Alison in the musical "Fun Home."

“Fun Home” was a bucket list play to direct for Bowcutt, who is an admirer of Kron’s work. He met and worked with the playwright as one of the co-founders of the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, honoring the work of off-off Broadway theaters. And Bowcutt directed a 2011 production of her play, “Well,” at Salt Lake City’s Pygmalion Productions.

The character of Alison was a dream role for Kennington. “From the moment I first heard the music, I was instantly enchanted by it,” the actor says.

Bowcutt praises Kennington and the rest of the cast, which took much work to assemble. Finding the right people at the right time, says Cynthia Fleming, SLAC’s executive artistic director, brought a rich energy to the production. “Every one of our characters is beautifully layered,” Fleming says. “It’s like they are playing this piece of life.”

(Courtesy photograph by dav.d daniels of dav.d photography) | Actors Hailee Olenberger and Mary-Helen Pitman in "Fun Home."

Bowcutt calls himself a “monster of a director” for the eight months of auditions that eventually led to casting Olenberger in the emotionally and musically demanding role of Middle Alison. The voice of the college-age character is both innocent and wry, and she sings a rangey breakout number, referred to as The Joan Song, which includes poignant lyrics such as “Changing my major to sex with Joan, with a minor in kissing Joan.”

Against the backdrop of Utah’s religiously conservative culture, Fleming thinks many Utah theatergoers will relate to the heartbreaking story of Alison’s mother, Helen (Ashley Wilkinson), who sacrifices her ambitions for the family until she disappears, as she sings in “Days and Days.” And then there are the complications of the character of Alison’s father, Bruce (Benjamin Henderson). “He breaks my heart in this role,” says Bowcutt of Henderson.

Bowcutt chose to cast three young actors (including Presley Caywood, the daughter of the show’s choreographer, Penny Caywood) to play the pivotal role of Small Alison. “It’s like the ‘Annie’ of now. Or the other ‘Matilda,’” he says of the emotional demands of the role. “It’s not just performance. They have to be fully engaged in this as actors.”

It’s remarkable to see the kids running around the theater company and then observe the careful way they listen and pay attention in rehearsals, Fleming says. Onstage, “they’re inside the play,” she says.

The musical richly layers the family’s tragedy with comedy, including songs that nod back to the 1970s bubblegum pop of the Partridge Family. Those numbers include “Raincoat of Love” and “Come to the Fun Home,” a homespun ad the Bechdel kids write to promote the family’s funeral home. “They are such big, happy musical numbers,” Bowcutt says. “They work perfectly within the show, and the bubble gets punctured immediately afterwards. Structurally, I love this show.”

(Courtesy photograph by dav.d daniels of dav.d photography) | The cast of Salt Lake Acting Company's "Fun Home."

The score is “beautiful in the biggest sense of the word, beautiful when it’s tragic, beautiful when it’s lighter,” says Fleming, underscoring the remarkable fluidity in the way the story’s spoken dialogue merges into songs.

SLAC’s production is anchored by the love the cast brings to this story of an atypical, typical family. “These actors really do have a beautiful sense of the play that goes on between what happens on the stage and what happens in the audience,” Bowcutt says.

‘Fun Home’<br> When • Previews April 3-5; opens Friday, April 6, and continues through May 13. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday<br> Additional performances • 7:30 p.m. April 24 and May 1<br> Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City<br> Tickets • $15-$42 (senior, student and 30-and-under discounts), at 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org<br>Also • Adult language and content

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