Review: CVRep’s ‘Fun Home’ will take your breath away as cast executes all the right moves

It’s the orchestration of the characters and the music that makes this show special. Director Adam Karsten and music director Michael Reno move their pieces on the boards like chess masters.
From left, Charlotte Wallace, Blake Kevin Dwyer and Cecily Dowd show the right moves in the CVRep production of “Fun Home,” playing this weekend through Sunday and continuing through Dec. 18. (Photo: David A. Lee)

One of the great things about buying season tickets is, you don’t always know what you’ll get.

“Fun Home,” the latest Coachella Valley Repertory production, comes to Cathedral City with a dazzling resume. It began life as a popular and critically-acclaimed graphic memoir by comic strip creator Alison Bechdel. It was adapted into an off-Broadway musical that became a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It moved to Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical. The soundtrack got nominated for a Grammy. Critics raved.

So, yeah. Stellar credentials.

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But I wasn’t expecting this.

It’s not a tear-jerker, but my wife and I cried. Because it’s so good. The audience (about two-thirds full for the Thursday opening) gave it a standing ovation.

It’s hard to recognize greatness from a synopsis. Basically, it’s about a woman coming to terms with her queerness and discovering her dad went through the same journey without being able to come to terms with it. His daughter wonders, how is it possible I never knew?

Author-lyricist Lisa Kron tells the story through the eyes of the daughter, Alison, at three stages of her life, all at once. It’s the orchestration of the characters and the music that makes this show special. Director Adam Karsten and music director Michael Reno move their pieces on the boards (including six off-stage musicians) like chess masters.

The father and daughter are doing a dance around revelation and transparency, and when it looks like they will finally really communicate, the conversation with the dad switches seamlessly from the college-age Alison to the adult Alison, taking it to the brink of a breakthrough.

The importance of Lisa Kron’s music can’t be understated. It creates drama without cluttering up the dialogue, enabling the play to conclude in less than two hours. Individual songs tell their own stories, like cabaret numbers, while also advancing the narrative.

But the cast executes all the right moves. Victor Wallace, a veteran of off-Broadway and touring Broadway shows, gives a measured performance as the troubled dad who runs a funeral home, teaches high school English and has a brilliant eye for home renovation. His build-up doesn’t explode as much as implode with his final number, “Edges of the World.”

“Rings of Keys” by the adolescent Keeley Karsten as “Small Alison” just makes you go, “Wow.” “Telephone Wire,” about the father-daughter conversation that ends with a disconnect, lets Cecily Dowd as the college-age Alison show her excellent chops. And the finale, “Flying Away,” makes you think all three actresses playing Alison, including Kristen Howe as the grown-up daughter, are truly family.

Leslie Tinnaro as the mother, Helen, could hide her “tells” about the family secret better, but she provides a showstopper when the secret is out, revealing in “Days,” “Now my life is shattered and laid bare.”

To be honest, a scene with kids gets the show off to a shaky start, making one wonder about the sophistication of the production. The set by Jimmy Cuomo screams “Broadway caliber,” conveying the artistic brilliance of the tormented dad. The lights and sound by Moira Whitaker and Kiki Roller also are first rate.

But the show, and the entire cast, get better and better. Ultimately, they take your breath away.


Details: Catch this show through Dec. 18. Get tickets at [email protected] or by calling 760-296-2966. Then prepare for the surprises Broadway director Phil McKinley has in store for the next CVRep show, “Dirty Blonde,” starting Jan. 17.

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