San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon’s latest musical is five-time Tony Award winner “Fun Home,” based on the eponymous graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. The story explores Bechdel’s discovery and acceptance of her sexuality as well as her relationship with her closeted father.
Spanning decades of Bechdel’s life, the musical stars three actors of various ages to play the role of Alison. The youngest of the three is McKenna Rose, age 12, who plays Small Alison.
Rose was inspired to start acting by her older sister, who started participating in theater first. “The first show I ever did was at a little community theater when I was four,” Rose shared in an interview with The Daily Californian.
Ever since her community theater show, she’s continued performing, appearing both onstage and on screen in some independent films and commercials. With her mother keeping an eye out for local theater auditions, Rose landed her latest role in “Fun Home.”
“She’s pretty defiant with her dad,” Rose explained of Small Alison. “If he does something that she doesn’t like, that she thinks is wrong, she’s gonna tell him that, but she also wants his approval a lot.”
The complex role may seem intimidating for a young actor, but Rose is undaunted. “It comes pretty naturally,” Rose said about playing Small Alison. “We’re similar in age, and we’re both trying to figure out who we are.”
Though participating in the musical keeps her very busy — a time commitment of about two and a half hours nearly every day after school — Rose finds her involvement in the production rewarding.
“It’s really cool to be a part of this cast, because they’re all really great people,” she said. “And also, it’s cool to be a part of telling an actually true story.”
One of the most important moments in the musical is Rose’s big number, “Ring of Keys,” which she sings as Small Alison is captivated by a butch delivery woman with whom she feels a deep relatability.
“It’s a really great song to sing,” Rose said. “I really like it because it’s really showing the beginning of Alison’s journey. She sees somebody walk in the door, and she’s like, ‘Oh my God, this person is so cool!’ That’s when she starts exploring her sexuality and who she is.”
Adult Alison, the narrator of the musical, is played by local actor Rinabeth Apostol (she/her/siya). Born in San Francisco and raised in the South Sacramento area, the latter where she started performing at a young age, Apostol returned to the Bay Area about 12 years ago and began acting full time.
“I come from a very musical family, on my mother’s side primarily. My grandfather was the leader of the Philippine Army Band,” she described.
Apostol’s parents were dedicated to exposing her and her sister to the arts, which led to Apostol’s love of theater.
“It sparked something in me, but I did not think that it was going to be my career path,” she said. “When I finally decided to pursue it as a full time job, I feel like it really was my journey to finding my true happiness and defining that success to me was being able to perform and create characters and tell stories.”
One of Apostol’s favorite parts about being in “Fun Home” is witnessing its unconventional way of storytelling. Most of the musical’s events occur in front of Alison, hard at work putting these memories onto paper as drawings. She has few interactions with other characters, yet she provides commentary in the present.
“I get to be an observer at all times, because she’s watching her memories play out,” Apostol said. “Being an observer to your own life is a neat part of the show that I really enjoy.”
Apostol’s work is informed by her identity as a queer Pilipina woman, and she’s passionate about increasing representation for these identities.
“I asked whether or not they would actually be considering other Asian American women to play the younger versions of the character,” she said. “They told me that they actually were seeing some other Asian American girls ranging in that age, so that made me excited. When I got the offer, I was just absolutely thrilled.”
Apostol is especially delighted to be playing Bechdel, as roles as open as these are quite rare to come by.
“I’ve never played a lesbian onstage before,” she shared. “That’s a part of me that I can’t wait to get to play.”
Apostol also appreciates that Bechdel’s sexual orientation is a central focus of the story; rather than being more subtly conveyed, it’s acknowledged immediately.
“This is a story that highlights a butch lesbian, which, if you’re looking in the canon of musical theater, you just don’t find,” Apostol said. “It’s so important that our stories are heard and we remind folks that our lives and our stories matter.”
Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].