In adapting cartoon artist Alison Bechdel’s unflinching coming-of-age and coming-to-grips-with-the-past memoir “Fun Home,” lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori have created something extraordinary: a serious musical counterpointed by explosions of joy, which explores difficult territory with fresh insight.
With adroit direction by Blake Coheley, a marvelous cast and an expertly arranged orchestra (conducted by musical director Jefferson Turner), this Southern Rep production, in collaboration with the NOCCA Stage Company, is a tight, polished gem guaranteed to captivate fans of unconventional musical theater.
On Kimberly Powers’ elegant, atmospheric set, singular items — a desk, a bed, a door, a coffin — whisk on and off with precise timing, vividly creating all the various requisite locales. Dan Zimmer’s nuanced lighting is unafraid to utilize the shadowy dimness of memory to maximum effect.
At 43, cartoonist Alison (Chrissy Bowen) is lost both personally and professionally. Searching for inspiration, she explores a box of childhood memorabilia that conjures slippery memories of growing up in a museumlike Victorian house in the 1970s.
Her father, Bruce (Jason Dowies), teaches high school English in a small Pennsylvania town, obsesses over restoring old houses and runs the Bechdel family business, a funeral home nicknamed the “fun home.”
An assiduous champion of the perfect family pretense, Bruce secretly tries to seduce several young men (all played by Bryce Slocumb). These furtive involvements go undetected by his kids but not by his quietly desperate wife, Helen (Leslie Castay), and result in scandal and strife for everyone.
Alison is played by three different actresses at different points in her life: Small Alison, the child (Camille Burkey) who plays in caskets with her brothers (Christian Collins and Henry Morse); Medium Alison (Taylor Lewis), the college student, who awkwardly falls for a classmate named Joan (Keyara Milliner); and Grown Alison (Chrissy Bowen), who struggles to understand what compelled her father to make the life-altering choices that lead to a family tragedy.
“Fun Home” is not concerned with what happens — we know from the near beginning the fatal finish. The puzzle is why it happened.
Jeanine Tesori’s character-driven score combines heartbreaking confessional ballads with deliberately silly pop ditties which, truth be told, are derivative and fall short in their ambition for raucous showstoppers.
Each actor brings a humane vulnerability to their performances.
Bowen, with her cropped hair and bold-rimmed glasses, is a dead ringer for the actual Alison Bechdel, never leaving the stage as she wholeheartedly investigates the imperfect fragments of memory. She excels in the final car ride confrontation in her last attempt to comprehend her psychologically bewildering father.
The knockout tune “Ring of Keys,” sung with ebullient spirit by Burkey, celebrates her sexual awakening in a spirited ode to a handsome lesbian boasting a persuasive ring of keys.
Another standout — “Changing my Major” — performed with winsome ecstasy by Lewis after her wondrous initiation into sex with the serenely confident Joan.
Lewis’ futile attempts to communicate with her parents about her sexuality are heartbreaking.
In the sorrowful “Days and Days,” Castay delivers a shattering tear-jerker on a wasted life with a man who cannot bring himself to fully embrace her.
As Bruce, Dowies delicately shades his contradictory character, who is equally skilled at enchanting people and demeaning them and will always, on some level, remain a mystery to his family and to himself. His soaring powerhouse “Edges of the World” climaxes the evening.
In the end, the splitting effect of three Alisons disappears, and they connect with a fascinating synthesis creating a single character viewed from three different angles in the same moment. With their thrilling “Flying Away,” the production concludes on a stirring tone of reconciliation and transcendence with Alison realizing that “every so often, there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”
WHEN:Through Oct. 22
WHERE: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Nims Black Box Theater, 2800 Chartres St.
INFO: (504) 522-6545 or southernrep.com