Roslyn Packer Theatre, May 1


The last decade has seen musical theatre not just reinventing itself, but shredding its own rulebook, and two of the most revolutionary shows are playing in Sydney simultaneously. Hamilton, the greatest revolution of all, is now joined by Fun Home, which, storming Broadway a year earlier, represents at least as much of a shake-up in story-telling terms – not to mention a quiet revolution in sexual politics.

Mia Honeysett, Lucy Maunder and Maggie McKenna: the three Alisons. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Anyone who’s read Alison Bechdel’s enthralling graphic novel of the same name would wonder how the hell it could be turned into a musical. But Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) found ingenious solutions to dealing with the constant time-shifts and all that Bechdel’s cartoons conveyed. The novel has a Bechdel of the “present” looking back on different phases of her life as she gradually unpacked the fact she was a lesbian, discovered sex and came out to her parents. Only at that point did she learn that her father, Bruce, had been having affairs with men before and during the marriage, and, four months after she came out, he jumped in front of a speeding truck. That’s not a spoiler: Alison tells us as much early on.

So we’re on far from conventional musical turf, here. Not only do we have a lesbian protagonist (ground-breaking in itself) and a suicide, but the title is the nickname Alison and her siblings give to Bechdel Funeral Home – her father being an undertaker when not teaching high school English or carrying out extravagant renovations.

Emily Havea and Maggie McKenna. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Taming the story’s zigzagging chronology was solved by creating “Small Alison”, “Medium Alison” and “Alison Bechdel”, with the latter, an adult cartoonist, observing her younger selves: commenting, narrating, wondering, remembering and, ultimately, entering the action. Kron’s other narrative masterclass was to intertwine so comprehensively what we might call “The Tragedy of Bruce” with “The Sexual Awakening of Alison”. The one thing she didn’t manage was to bring the mother, Helen, as fully into the foreground as in the novel, which is a shame. She’s a fascinating mix of actor, pianist, semidetached mother and disengaged wife, and Dean Bryant’s Sydney Theatre Company production boasts the perfectly-cast Marina Prior. Alas the role bequeaths her just one major song, Days and Days, which wells up out of the preceding dialogue as organically as a blue tulip in a rockery.

The rest of Bryant’s casting is pretty ideal, too, with Adam Murphy making Bruce sympathetic, despite being so often irascible and petulant, and then nailing the intensity of Edges of the World. Mia Honeysett shines as Young Alison, and Maggie McKenna is the show’s beating heart as Medium Alison, a tangle of embarrassment and sexual exhilaration, who revels in singing the glorious university anthem, I’m Changing My Major (“to sex with Joan”). Lucy Maunder astutely fulfils the trickily low-key role of the present-tense Alison, and Emily Havea delights as the Joan in question.

Tesori’s score, if not as dazzlingly daring as that for her Caroline, or Change (another revolutionary musical of recent years), is still striking at its best, oozing sophistication as it helps build confronting emotional climaxes without resort to overkill, and having quirky orchestrations for a septet directed by Carmel Dean.

The constant shifts in chronology are accompanied by consequent shifts in space, and Alicia Clements’ lavish use of a revolve facilitates our knowing where and when we are – which is handy given the emotional and narrative complexity of what is far from your average musical.

Until May 29.