Review by Carly Fisher
Sydney is proving that it is more than making up for lost time in 2020 with a stellar year of theatre in 2021. It seems that when you’re not at the theatre at the moment, you’re reading another announcement of yet another show that has been programmed for this year…and so many of them are musicals! I am all about it!!
Different to the other musicals that you have seen or will see on the stage this year, Fun Home, Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production, is more of a biographical song cycle than your typical Broadway blockbuster. And yet, when it opened on Broadway in 2015, it certainly made a Blockbuster-esque splash - being hailed by Ben Brantley of the New York Times as “a rare beauty, extraordinary and heart-gripping” and then going on to win five Tony Awards, including the coveted ‘Best Musical’ prize and becoming a Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist…to name but a few of the show’s accolades.
When I first saw this show it was in its preview stage at the Circle on the Square theatre on Broadway. As the name of the theatre likely suggests, the stage here is in the round and so, after premiering at the Public Theater, the show was reimagined to make best use of this unique Broadway space…and boy, did they succeed! I went in knowing absolutely nothing about the story, just that it was a new musical and that if it was good, it would probably be nominated for a Tony so it was worth seeing. I grabbed the last remaining seat which happened to be in the front row of the in-the-round theatre and buckled in for whatever the next 100 minutes held. And to say that I was blown away would be to oversimplify my theatre experience that day. I ran out of the theatre to tell friends to get tickets, and more importantly, to look up whether there was a minimum age you had to be to be nominated for a Tony award because whatever everyone thought of the show, there was a young girl named Sydney Lucas playing young Alison and despite being only about 11 years old, she had managed to steal the show of a Broadway production. They were all good of course, but this little girl was magic.
And so, I was introduced to Fun Home.
When it was announced that it was coming to Sydney, I was immediately excited - I think that the story of one family’s truths and how each either came to terms with their truth, or didnt, is an important story - probably equally important for us to hear today as it was for Alison Bechdel to experience in the 1970s. And in the hands of a powerhouse like Sydney Theatre Company, you had to know that it was going to be treated well.
And it was.
The cast of the Australian production, for the large part, are fantastic with Lucy Maunder as Alison absolutely stealing the stage. Wherever Maunder was, even for all the times she is supposed to be in the background, it was hard to remove your eyes from being completely fixated on her and her exceptionally dynamic performance. She provides a masterclass through this role in listening on stage and as such, acts as a highly skilled narrator, whilst also being the show’s protagonist and doing both simultaneously with complete success. She is a marvel in this role.
The Alison wins only continue from there. Showing Alison at three stages of her life, the three women who take on the role have to have a unity about their performance that can be hard to match and yet, the Australian cast has done it perfectly. Maggie McKenna returns to the Roslyn Packer stage for STC as the middle Alison - Alison in her teen years. Proving she can absolutely diversify herself as a performer from when we last saw her here, adorned in wedding dresses, McKenna’s vocals are as strong and dynamic as Muriel’s fans would expect and her acting through this one is sublime. Not one facial expression is out of place and her angst as she comes to the realisation of who she really is, whilst still wanting the approval of her ‘old-school’ parents is real, raw and exceptionally portrayed. To cap it off, her comedic timing was perfectly on point…but if you saw Muriel’s that talent is no surprise. McKenna is a wonderful young Aussie talent that I hope we see more and more on our stages.
The performance that I reviewed saw Katerina Kotsopoulos take on the role of young Alison and all I can tell you about this kid is that she is going to go far so watch out for her name on Sydney stages again soon! When you consider the age of this young performer you cannot help but be marvelled by her talent and success in this role.
The four supporting actors - Emily Havea, Ryan Gonzalez, Ben Stabile and William Wheeler - offer a great authenticity and care for the story that transports you back to the 70s to this small Pennsylvanian town and a time of revelation, fear and tradition. Particularly Gonzalez’s vocals are, characteristically, fantastic…if only the show had more opportunities for him to show them off!
Unfortunately, the parents for me offered the least. Whilst Adam Murphy as Alison’s father fluctuated for me between moments of perfection in this role and moments that really felt contrived, Marina Prior as Alison’s mother really lost me. The lack of warmth throughout by this matriarchal figure makes it hard for you to feel much for her as she breaks down and proclaims that she has lost her life due to devotion to her kids and husband. Throughout she seems disinterested in her kids, rather cold and to be brutally honest, not too believable in this context. Though not easy to critique such a prolific Australian performer in this manner, irrespective of her talents and her fabulous voice, this role, acting wise, just didn’t fit for her.
Alicia Clements’ design was incredibly clever and well executed for this space. Combined with Dean Bryant’s direction, the flow of the show was continuous due to the intelligence of scene changes and set movement. There wasn’t a minute wasted in the 100 minutes of this musical and Bryant’s excellent direction is to credit for this. I do wish that the accent coach on this show had been listed on the website because whoever they were, they did a wonderful job! Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography was perfectly period and exceptionally fun - though there are minimal numbers with a ‘dance break’ for lack of a better term, those that had them were wonderfully choreographed, and the rest of the songs had a sophisticated refinement that really allowed the powerful story to remain the show’s focus throughout. As a whole the creative team and crew truly have excelled in this production.
It is so exciting to see more musicals taking to the stage in Sydney and to see some excellent works that were yet to make it down under, finally having their time in the sun. Australian audiences are more than ready to support these great stories and Broadway-esque musicals! Fun Home being the latest transfer here was a very clever idea and one that I personally was very glad to support!
So where, overall, did the show fall just that little bit flatter for me than I was expecting after my first encounter with the show? I remember notes of subtlety in both the performances, particularly of the parents, and in large moments of the show that were so haunting in New York, that simply didn’t impact me the same way this time. Ultimately I felt that the show lacked the very important intimacy that it requires. Whether this was because of how large the theatre was, or the return to its original proscenium stage format, I’m not sure but there was just something missing. Whilst I thought that the show was very good, I also felt that there was such a missed opportunity for STC - why not put this show in Wharf 1 which, thanks to the new renovations, can be transformed to be a theatre in the round. The show would have excelled in that space and allowed for the missing intimacy truly to have been achieved.
All the same, the show sits in the Roslyn Packer Theatre and has an important story, well worth seeing, to tell. Maggie McKenna fans, you shouldn’t miss this performance. But ultimately, if you go for no other reason than to watch Lucy Maunder, you’ll still be glad that you went…she is that good!
Photo Credit: Prudence Upton