Arts and Culture

Forward Theater Co. lands Broadway musical and a Tony Award winner

Karen Olivo stars as Alison

It took three years for Forward Theater Co. to bring the Broadway musical “Fun Home” to Wisconsin audiences, but Jen Uphoff Gray says it was worth the wait.

The show stars Karen Olivo in the lead role as Alison, a graphic artist who discovers secrets about her father after he commits suicide. The show includes flashbacks and three actresses performing the role of Alison at three different ages.

“We spent years working to get the rights for the Wisconsin premiere to be here,” says Gray, the company’s artistic director. “The fact that audiences get to see it with a Tony Award winner is really special, and we’re thrilled about it.”

Olivo won a 2009 Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical for her role as Anita in the Broadway revival of “West Side Story.” She also played Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton” in Chicago in 2016.

“Fun Home” was adapted from the highly regarded 2006 graphic novel-memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel, whose comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” was published in the 1990s in The Daily Cardinal, a University of Wisconsin–Madison student newspaper.

The show is Forward Theater’s first musical in 10 seasons and is a family affair, with Gray in the director’s chair and lighting design from James Uphoff, who is Gray’s brother and Olivo’s husband.

Gray read the “Fun Home” script in early 2014 and immediately requested professional rights from Samuel French, a major licensor and publisher of American plays and musicals. She says Forward Theater submits an application for rights one or two years out and sometimes has to wait a longer period if the show is brand new and running on Broadway.

Gray checked in with Samuel French on occasion, but due to a limited national tour production of “Fun Home,” rights for regional productions didn’t become available until 2017.

“Fun Home” has been on Olivo’s radar for years, too. She’s friends with Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the show’s music and inquired if Olivo would consider playing Alison for the national tour. However, the tour dates didn’t fit Olivo’s schedule.

“Fun Home,” which started on Broadway in 2013 and ran for 582 performances, won five Tony Awards in 2015, including best new musical, best book and best score for Tesori.

Olivo planned to perform in Forward Theater’s “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” in spring 2016, but a scheduling conflict forced her to delay her Forward Theater — and Madison — debut. Olivo moved to the city with husband James Uphoff in 2013.

Olivo, who saw “Fun Home” during its Broadway run, is excited to work with her husband and sister-in-law. She says the musical and the character Alison resonate with her.

“I feel like older Alison is just the observer,” Olivo says. “She really just sort of paints the picture and then she allows you to view what’s in her brain, and those actors [portraying Alison as a younger woman] play it out. I appreciate that storytelling because it really is a collaborative process.”

“Fun Home,” with a cast of nine and band of eight, will be performed at The Playhouse at Overture Center for the Arts. The show dates are Nov. 1-4, 7-11, 14-18, 20-21 and 23-25.


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