Step into this Fun Home for a poignant, superbly performed coming-of-age musical

Tackling coming of age, gender identity, suicide and family dysfunction — all in a funeral home setting — Fun Home is an unlikely hit musical. But it's a thoughtful and moving story, given a sterling production by an outstanding cast in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse's production.

Broadway hit based on Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic novel gets winning production at RMTC Warehouse

As the adult Alison, Catherine Wreford is at the centre of an outstanding cast in Fun Home. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

Tackling coming of age, gender identity, suicide and family dysfunction — all in a funeral home setting — Fun Home is an unlikely hit musical.

Sarah Garton Stanley even points that out in the director's notes for her production, running now at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Warehouse.

Nonetheless, the 2015 musical — based on the bestselling graphic novel by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel — did indeed become a Broadway hit, winning a fistful of Tonys.

It's easy to see why in Stanley's winning production, which is funny, profoundly moving and wrenchingly honest.

Fun Home packs an emotional wallop.

The musical's creators (book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori) smartly frame Bechdel's memoir as a sort of memory play, with the omnipresent adult version of Alison (Catherine Wreford) watching — and sketching — as her story unfolds.

Fun Home explores the complex relationship between Alison (Isabel Haderer is seen here as Small Alison) and her father, Bruce (Carson Nattrass). (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

Like Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel, the story follows her childhood in a Pennsylvania funeral home (the "fun home" of the title), presided over by an autocratic father (Carson Nattrass) and barely kept in check by a mother (Laura Olafson) whose approach seems to be to grin and bear it for as long as she can.

The Bechdel patriarch's violent mood swings — he lurches from loving dad to lashing out at his children for the slightest faults — seem to be explained, at least in part, by the fact he is suffering as a closeted gay man living in 1960s and '70s America.

The youngest version of our central character, Small Alison (an outstanding Isabel Haderer), is puzzled by her mercurial father, even as she realizes there's something different about herself. That fact is underscored in Ring of Keys, a song in which she professes her attraction to a butch delivery woman she spots in a restaurant — an early inkling that Alison herself is gay.

She doesn't fully confront that fact until her college years, as Medium Alison (Mackenzie Colton) experiences her sexual awakening with her first girlfriend, Joan (a delightfully playful Cassandra Consiglio) — and struggles with a growing distance from her increasingly erratic father.

The adult Alison Bechdel (Catherine Wreford, right, with Laura Olafson as Helen Bechdel and Isabel Haderer as Small Alison) attempts to capture her complicated family in sketches in the Royal MTC Warehouse production. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

All of this is set to graceful, and often wistful, music from Tesori, performed marvellously by an all-local cast of nine (rounded out by Nelson Bettencourt in a series of roles, and Cash Laluk and Elliot Ledlow — Catherine's son — as Alison's brothers). They're joined by a very fine six-piece band, under the solid musical direction of Rachel Cameron.

The three Alison performers together paint a rich portrait of the central character — the young Haderer gets to show off a soaring, sweet voice in songs like Ring of Keys, while Kolton captures the awkwardness of young adulthood (and being a randy college student) with superb comic timing. 

Catherine Wreford grounds the musical with a subtly effective performance, and delivers one of the musical's most heartbreaking moments in Telephone Wire, a tender and tragic father-daughter duet with Nattrass.

Nattrass himself beautifully captures the tension and torment of Alison's father, Bruce, and shows off his own remarkable voice in songs like Edges of the World.

Olfason brings a richness to Alison's mother, Helen, and again displays a powerful voice.

The three Alison performers — Isabel Haderer as Small Alison, Catherine Wreford as the adult Alison, centre, and Mackenzie Colton as Medium Alison — paint a rich portrait of the character. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

Stanley's production of the tightly written 95-minute musical (performed without intermission) is nuanced and thoughtful. She gives it plenty of room to breathe and lets the emotional impact of Bechdel's story resonate, while never allowing its energy to lag. (It moves particularly efficiently thanks to an ingeniously adaptable set designed by Amy Keith.)

Fun? Yes, in spite of the often difficult subject matter, it genuinely is in many spots. (Come to the Fun Home, a musical number centred around a commercial the kids make for the Bechdel Funeral Home, is a great bit of comedy, for example.)

But Fun Home is far more — a beautifully told, superbly performed and poignant story of family, coming of age, love and all the messy imperfections those things bring.

(If you want to get in on the fun, though, move fast — tickets are going quickly and RMTC already has added an extra performance to the show's run.)

Fun Home runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Dec. 1.

Fun Home runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Dec. 1, 2019. 1:55

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.


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