‘Fun Home’ on tour thrives on its creative contrasts
By Bob Abelman
“Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist. … Caption – My dad and I were exactly alike. Caption – My dad and I were nothing alike.”
These lines from the opening scene of “Fun Home,” the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical that is launching its national tour at Playhouse Square, perfectly sum up the play’s remarkably simple story and the astoundingly complex characters who populate it.
It’s this creative juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity, and the heart wrenching and theatrical intriguing moments it produces on stage, that makes this musical such a welcome addition to this season’s lineup of Broadway roadshows
“Fun Home” is a one-act memory play based on a 2006 graphic novel memoire by Alison Bechdel. It features 43-year-old Alison in her studio drawing illustrations of her family and attempting to capture the perfect captions. Memories from her youth and young adulthood unfold on the stage around her as she tries to reconcile the enigma that was her father.
Each scene is a selective, sentimental and occasionally surreal remembrance of a happy family and a healthy home. These out of sequence memories subtly give way to repressed truths about her dad’s tortured soul and shed light on the family’s dysfunction. And, as is the case with all memory plays, the standard rules of musical theater don’t apply.
None of the songs serves to move the story along its dramatic arc or add heightened vision to the storytelling, as they do in most musicals. Instead, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron, they merely reflect a simple observation, express a single thought or capture an isolated emotion. Their austerity renders them particularly beautiful and surprisingly poignant.
Liberties are also taken with the portrayal of Alison. The history of lesbians as featured protagonists in musical theater is sparse to say the least, and this show’s queer identity is one of the things that makes it special. But it is the division of Alison into three characters at different stages in her life that makes it intriguing.
As Small Alison at age 9, Alessandra Baldacchino is magnificent. Honest in her expression of emotion and authentic in her relationships with her bothers – played well by Pierson Salvadore and Lennon Nate Hammond – Baldacchino captures all the complexities of this character. She is also blessed with a lovely voice that absolutely crushes the song “Ring of Keys,” where Small Alison recognizes herself in a butch delivery-woman who walks by.
Magnificent also describes Abby Corrigan’s portrayal of Medium Alison at age 19, whose deliciously awkward insecurities and puppy-love crush on college classmate Joan – a delightful Karen Eilbacher – are a pleasure to watch. The song where she declares she is changing her major to Joan is one of the show’s highlights.
Another is “Telephone Wire,” where the adult Alison – portrayed by the immensely talented Kate Shindle – goes for a car ride with her father during a college-era memory flashback rather than her college-age self. The effect of this existential moment and the song that accompanies it is haunting.
Robert Petkoff is mesmerizing as Bruce, Alison’s deeply troubled father, particularly when his intense self-denial loses the battle with his homosexual urges in the company of Roy, Mark, Pete, and Bobby – all played by Robert Hager.
This plays havoc on his family and reduces his wife Helen to a lost soul, which is handled with remarkable delicacy by Susan Moniz.
In the original production of “Fun Home,” which opened and recently closed at Broadway’s Circle in the Square, all these intimate moments and dulcet disclosures were delivered bare-boned and in-the-round with no permanent scenery and before no more than 700 patrons at a time.
Such intimacy and perspective are sadly sacrificed in this touring production, where cavernous theaters like the Conner Palace force proscenium stages and seating for significantly larger and physically distanced audiences on the show’s creative team.
Director Sam Gold and designers David Zinn (scenic), Ben Stanton (lighting) and Kai Harada (sound) do what they can to compensate.
They place the magnificent string-heavy six-piece orchestra, under Micah Young’s direction, on stage behind the performers, which adds charm.
And they add scenery and family furnishings to fill the expansive space on stage. They do so by degree and in accordance with the distance of Alison’s memories, which works beautifully. The stage is barer and the details of the home are less complete when looking back at Alison’s youth; they are more fleshed out when seen through the memories of Alison’s young adulthood.
Still, the touring production seems more staged and less intimate than originally conceived. This is a shame and would be a problem, if not for the exquisite performances by this cast and enrapturing nature of the material they deliver.
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 22
TICKETS & INFO: $10-$100, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 7, 2016.
Lead image: Ensemble of “Fun Home.” Photo | Joan Marcus