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Actors on stage in an Actor's Express play.
Actor's Express, which produced "Fun Home" in January, is one of 11 arts nonprofits to receive emergency grants from the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta. (Photo by Casey Gardner)

Review: Actor’s Express gives Tony-winning “Fun Home” a staging worthy of its pedigree

Fun Home is an innovative and original musical that eventually rears back and punches you in the gut. The show, staged not quite professionally by Out of Box Theatre in Marietta last year, gets the treatment it deserves in its professional bow, at Actor’s Express (through February 16).

The musical may seem a little complicated but its beauty lies in how it combines a personal, moving story — based on graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s own life — with a grand score. Fun Home has a Tony Award-winning book and score by playwright Lisa Kron (2.5 Minute Ride, Well) and Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change and Violet). Many of the songs have become celebrated.

Alison (Rhyn McLemore Saver), a middle-aged lesbian cartoonist, narrates the story. She’s looking back at her life in the wake of her father’s death. She grew up in a Pennsylvania home that doubled as a funeral home (she and her siblings called it the Fun Home, hence the title). Her dad, Bruce (Jeff McKerley), is a closeted English teacher and avid restorationist; her mom, Helen (Natasha Drena), is a pianist and college instructor.

Eden Mew (as Small Alison) sings “Ring of Keys.”

As the show progresses, Alison looks back at two versions of herself — as 9-year-old Small Alison (Eden Mew), who loves wearing pants and playing “airplane” with her dad, and 18-year-old Medium Alison (Marcía Cunning), who’s off to college.

After readings and labs, Fun Home began life in 2013 as an off-Broadway show. When it transferred to Broadway, it won five 2015 Tony awards, including best musical, with Kron and Tesori becoming the first all-woman team to receive best score honors. The show lives up to that pedigree.

Director (and Express artistic director) Freddie Ashley makes efficient use of his stage. From her messy drafting table/desk, Alison looks out — and all around her — at key moments in her life. She frequently joins fellow cast members and relives memories — some pleasant, many painful.

The 90-minute-long Fun Home is tightly packed. Some scenes seem too random (the Partridge Family sendup “Raincoat of Love,” in particular), yet the show knows exactly where it’s going. The score, for the most part, sustains an exceptionally high level.

Off to college: Medium Alison (Marcía Cunning, right) meets Joan (Michelle Pokopac) at Oberlin College.

Despite its many serious moments, Fun Home can be, well, funny. At college, Medium Alison tests her limits and falls for a fellow student named Joan (Michelle Pokopac). Her subsequent song, “Changing My Major,” is revealing, fresh and droll.

The Express staging is full of effective performances, with the best coming from Drena (2014’s End of the Rainbow), Cunning and Mew. Drena — seen too rarely on Atlanta stages — delivers a superb rendition of “Days and Days,” which features a revealing conversation with college-age Alison. She conveys a life of unfulfilled potential, of hiding emotional wounds to keep her marriage intact, her own dreams deferred. Young Mew, a startling find, elevates “Ring of Keys,” a song in which she identifies with a butch delivery woman.

McKerley’s role is the most challenging. At first his Bruce seems one-dimensional despite the man’s many layers and secrets. His final song, “Edges of the World,” is quite sad. Completing the cast are young actors Vinny Montague and Alex Newberg as Small Alison’s brothers, and Juan Carlos Unzueta (2017’s Little Shop of Horrors) as several characters, including Bruce’s younger lovers. Mew, Montague and Newberg lead a spirited “Come to the Fun Home” as they envision promoting the family business in a commercial.

For Helen Bechdel (Natasha Drena), it’s a life of dreams deferred.

Sadly, Saver isn’t quite up to the demands of playing adult Alison, the central character. She can be a charismatic performer, as witnessed in last year’s The Cake at Horizon Theatre. Here she seems a bit miscast. She’s supposed to be about the same age her father was when he died, but that’s not believable here. Her performance largely lacks a sense of how her upbringing in the dysfunctional house on Maple Avenue affected and shaped her life. She watches impactful moments from her past with an almost blank stare, despite the pain and confusion she must feel. She does have a fine moment with the late number “Telephone Wire,” in which Bruce and Medium Alison sit side by side in the car unable to communicate even though there’s so much to say. It’s heartbreaking.

Fun Home is distinctive and universal — and as much about what isn’t said as what is. The drive to get Fun Home at Actor’s Express has been a long one that started several years ago and has seen a few delays. It’s been worth the wait.