After national tour stops in both Orlando and Tampa from the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” Orlando’s Mad Cow Theatre is putting on a production featuring local talent starting June 1.
“Fun Home,” the first Broadway musical to have a lesbian protagonist, is an adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir. The show portrays Bechdel’s uncovering of her own sexuality, her strained relationship with her closeted gay father and the re-examination of the years leading up to his unexpected suicide. The hour and 40-minute show is seen through the eyes of a 43-year-old Alison who looks to the past as she writes the graphic novel the play is based on.
The show’s director, Mark Edward Smith, thinks “Fun Home” and its nine-member cast are a perfect match for Mad Cow Theatre.
“It seemed like it was a nice fit for the theater in terms of the physical production, in terms of the relationship to the community; it just felt like the right show at the right time,” he says.
Smith, 59, says although the driving force of the show is someone’s death, the play as a whole is actually about life.
“I really like the fact that the script doesn’t shy away from serious, difficult issues, but at the same time there’s also a lot of humor to bemind there as well,” Smith says.
Bechdel’s life story is pieced together by childhood memories from a 9-year-old young Alison and an 18-year-old teenage Alison—played by Raina Grabowski and Emilie Scheetz, respectively—who share the stage with adult Alison. Adult Alison is played by 26-year-old Sonia Roman. Completing the cast is David Lowe as Alison’s father Bruce and Laura Hodos as Alison’s mother Helen, as well as Jolie Hart, Ty Lowrey, Joshua Parrott and Rhyse Silvestro in various other roles.
Roman says she initially auditioned for the part of the teenage Alison, but was called back for the adult version of the role. She says she’s happy those at Mad Cow believed in her enough to offer her the lead role. Her character doesn’t leave the stage once, which Roman is excited about. She says she shares similarities with her character—such as the struggle of self-discovery, experimentation and being overly analytical—that help her to play Alison.
To prepare for her role, Roman says she read the original graphic novel of “Fun Home.” “It’s not as lighthearted as you’d think,” Roman says.
The tone of the play, which can switch from dark to humorous in a split second, was intimidating, Smith says. When Mad Cow’s executive director Mitzi Maxwell asked him to direct the play, he didn’t say yes right away. But Smith says he accepted the job to challenge himself.
“To be honest with you, it scared the hell out of me, but ultimately that’s why I said yes,” he says. “There’s no point in doing the same things over and over again that are safe for you.”
“Fun Home” was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won five, including Best Musical, when it first premiered on Broadway in 2015. The production also won a handful of other awards, such as a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and was nominated for a slew of other accolades. But it wasn’t the lengthy list of awards and nominations that intimidated Smith.
He says the play feels much larger than himself. Smith says he fell in love with the “extraordinary” show when he saw it on Broadway, and some of his initial hesitation came from wanting to do the play justice.
The show opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in October of 2013, running into January of the next year after several extensions. It opened at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre in April of 2015 and ceased production on September of 2016.
The show also embarked on a year-long U.S. tour and was also performed internationally in places such as the Philippines, Canada and Japan.
While Bechdel’s life includes specificity not everyone can relate to—such as spending most of her youth in her family’s funeral home, dubbed the “Fun Home”—Smith said one universal theme fuels the play: as an adult, Bechdel reevaluates her parents’ lives, beginning to see them as individuals rather than only her parents. With this new perspective comes surprising realizations about Bechdel’s father and his secrets.
“Usually when we’re kids, we see our parents as our parents and we don’t necessarily give any thought to what their life is outside of our life,” Smith says. “And then as you become an adult, at some point you start to think of your parents as people independent from you and you realize they have lives of their own.”
This unique evaluation of Bechdel’s life prompted Smith to go back and look at old photos of himself at age 9, 18 and into his 40s, something Smith recommends people do before seeing this show. When he went back and watched adult Alison relive her memories onstage it added more layers and depth to the experience. “That’s the same person, but it’s not the same person,” Smith says.
Above all, Smith says he’s most excited for the audience to see the cast in action. “We have the perfect cast,” he says. “It’s a joy; I look forward to coming to rehearsal every night.”
Several themes in the play center on LGBTQ issues such as grappling with one’s sexual identity and how to move forward with personal and public acceptance.
Lisa Kron wrote the book and lyrics for “Fun Home,” with music by Jeanine Tesori. Smith says Bechdel and Kron—who are both out lesbians—bring an authentic understanding of the LGBTQ experience to the show.
“It’s really exciting in that our voices are being heard more and more,” Smith says. “For a long time that was kind of silenced or you know, squashed or whatever.”
Smith says he hopes the play serves as a vehicle for people to have conversations that they’re not sure how to have, whether it’s about death, family issues, sexual identity or coming out.
“Fun Home” cultivated a special connection with Orlando before it was announced to come to the Mad Cow.
Weeks after the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016, Kron and the Broadway cast came to Orlando for a one-night concert staging of “Fun Home” at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
“It really touched a lot of people,” Smith says.
The exclusive showing raised money for victims of the shooting and Equality Florida, which is an educational charity and an advocacy organization that work to secure full equality for Florida’s LGBTQ community.
Smith says he hopes theatergoers come to the show open to whatever experience the play brings. “Hopefully theater has the ability to surprise,” he says.
Due to the heavy themes of “Fun Home,” Mad Cow will be holding talkbacks after all Thursday and Sunday performances involving the cast, crew and audience members. The talkbacks are even open to the public at large at no additional cost.
Being able to talk out feelings after the show may be a good thing as Roman warns that an onslaught of emotions come with seeing this show. But she says it’s ultimately about finding and living “your truth,” whatever that may mean to you.
“I really do think that ‘Fun Home’ is just a way of expressing to the LGBT community to just live your truth even if you don’t think that people around you are going to understand or necessarily agree with you,” Roman says.