Musicals inspired by source material are based on many things: movies, novels, plays, a catalog of pop hits.
The Tony Award-winning “Fun Home,” which opens in a Zoetic Stage production as part of the Theatre Up Close series at Miami’s Arsht Center this week, wouldn’t exist were it not for a memoir done in the form of a graphic novel.
Writer-cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a 2014 MacArthur “genius grant” fellow, told her family’s complicated story in the 2006 memoir “Fun Home,” which she subtitled “A Family Tragicomic.” Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist-book writer Lisa Kron spent five years creating a vignette-filled musical from Bechdel’s memories, both winning 2015 Tonys for their work.
Several South Florida companies tried getting the rights to be the first to produce “Fun Home” in the region. Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer and then managing director Nicholas Richberg flew to New York to make a pitch at the offices of Samuel French, which licenses the show, and succeeded.
Meltzer, whose company won six Carbonell Awards last week including best production of a musical for Zoetic’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” hadn’t seen either New York production of “Fun Home” (the show debuted at off-Broadway’s Public Theater in 2013, then moved to Broadway’s Circle in the Square in 2015). But he fell for the music and the story of a lesbian cartoonist revisiting her family history.
“Everybody who saw it in New York told me they thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is Stuart all over,’ ” Meltzer says. “I listened to the cast CD and fell in love with it. I thought it had a lot of similarities to the work we do already. The music is a pop score, and what comes through is the humanity of this woman trying to piece together the past in a really touching way. I knew it would be really great in the Carnival Studio Theater space.”
Although “Fun Home” is told from the perspective of the grown-up Alison, three versions of her appear in the musical. Small Alison, age 10, is played by Alexa Lasanta, who has toured nationally in “The Sound of Music” and who starred as Mary Lennox in Slow Burn Theatre’s “The Secret Garden.” Kimmi Johnson plays Medium Alison, a 19-year-old in the throes of her first lesbian relationship. The adult Alison is played by Anna Lise Jensen, whose work this season has included starring in Slow Burn’s “The Bridges of Madison County” and appearing in “Once” at Actors’ Playhouse.
Zoetic’s “Fun Home” also reunites another acting trio from its 2016 production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.” Jeni Hacker, who won a best actress Carbonell Award for her portrayal of the obsessive Fosca in “Passion,” plays Alison’s beleaguered mother, Helen, in “Fun Home,” and also serves as the show’s choreographer. Richberg, the dashing Giorgio in “Passion,” portrays Alison’s fastidious father, Bruce, a closeted gay man who taught high school English, ran a funeral home part-time and, as we learn within the first few minutes of the show, died under mysterious circumstances when he was hit by a truck. Jensen, the luminously beautiful Clara in “Passion,” plays Alison all grown up.
Although she’s now living in South Florida, Jensen was based in New York when she was cast in “Passion.” She saw the Circle in the Square production of “Fun Home” and remembers how much it moved her.
“I got on the subway to head back to Brooklyn and wrote an email to my parents,” Jensen says. “I told them how grateful I was that they always tried to see me. I was crying on the subway, thanking my parents for loving me so much.”
For Jensen, one question posed by “Fun Home” is this: How do we live in this world without letting the past overtake us?
“I played the ‘Fun Home’ CD for my fiancé in the car, and when it got to ‘Telephone Wire’ [sung by Alison and her father], he started to cry. He said he understood how the world made Bruce ache,” she says. “This show, and theater in general, really goes to these deep, dark places. We all feel these things.”
The actors playing the younger versions of Alison, in contrast, can evoke some of the happier moments in the character’s life. Johnson, who grew up in Coral Springs and still lives there, sings the joyful first-love song “Changing My Major” when Alison goes to college and falls for Joan (Hannah Benitez), an out lesbian.
“This material is big for everyone,” says Johnson, a first-time Zoetic cast member. “The memories Alison brings into this are those you can’t forget. Each one is at a 10. There is so much to dig out. … This is a true story that deserves to be heard.”
Lasanta, an 11-year-old fifth grader at Beacon Cove Intermediate School in Jupiter, saw “Fun Home” in New York and loved it. She calls the show’s well-known “Ring of Keys,” which Small Allison sings after she notices a delivery woman on a trip to New York with her father and brothers, “a song that shows off a lot. It’s a belty song.”
Already an experienced pro, Lasanta talks about making the role of Small Alison her own with the help of Meltzer. “He helps you dig deeper. He lets you grow roots instead of branches,” says Lasanta, who is aiming at an acting career and will be going to Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach this fall. “This is one of the most interesting roles I’ve ever done.”
Hacker notes that Helen’s three young kids — Lasanta’s small Alison, Brayden Labgold-Carroll’s John and Nate Poses’ Christian — bring the fun to “Fun Home” with two numbers: the title song, in which they do a peppy made-up commercial for the Bechdel Funeral Home, and “Raincoat of Love,” in which Small Alison imagines her troubled family as the happy one on her favorite TV sitcom.
Largely, though, Hacker says her character tries to shield her children from their father’s double life, which involves hooking up with a series of men and an underage boy (all played by Jonah Robinson).
“This show at its core is about broken relationships in the family,” she says. “It resonates because we all have those. There are lots of stories in ‘Fun Home,’ but that’s what resounds.”
Richberg feels that resonance in playing Bruce Bechdel. “There are so many larger-than-life tragic figures in theater. Bruce is a true-to-life tragic figure,” the actor says. “His struggle and fall is so relevant to so many families, especially of his generation. It’s epic and yet so subtle.”
The teen Alison’s revelation of her sexual orientation precipitates a crisis in her father. “He’s thinking maybe he can tag onto this wave of openness,” Richberg says. “But he’s afraid to go back, and he can’t go forward. He’s literally caught. That’s where the truck finds him.”
Zoetic’s production of “Fun Home” is different from the Broadway version in notable ways. Instead of being done in the round, the show is presented in a proscenium configuration, with Michael McClain’s set representing the Bechdels’ meticulously restored Victorian home in a minimalist way. Projected onto the set are a changing series of cartoon drawings evoking Bechdel’s style, but these were created by current Zoetic managing director and co-founder Michael McKeever, who drew the characters’ faces to resemble those of the actors in the show.
“This production brings the show front and center in a really interesting way,” Richberg says. “The physical world is stripped down. So much of what you see is in Alison’s head. It really is Theatre Up Close, such an intimate story told in such an intimate space.”
“Fun Home” is running April 12-May 13 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $50 and $55. To order, call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.