By Karen Isaacs
When Fun Home won the 2015 Tony award for best musical, it was a first: The entire creative team was female. Now the national tour of this show is at the Bushnell through June 25. It’s a show that will move you though at times it may also confuse you.
It’s based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel about her discovery of both her sexuality and a number of family secrets.
The musical features a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron with music by Jeanine Tesori (she wrote the musical for Goodspeed’s Thoroughly Modern Millie).
What makes the musical sometimes confusing is that Alison, the central character is shown at three ages – about 10, 18 and then the adult author in her early forties. Plus the show jumps time. Even the fact that all three Alison’s are often on stage at the same time can make you unsure when something is happening.
Alison – the adult Alison – is working on her memoir, a graphic novel about her growing up in Pennsylvania. She remembers the good times when she was young with her two brothers (they appear rather sporadically) and her Mom and Dad. Dad (Bruce) is a central figure – a high school English teacher, he also has restored their home to historic house perfection plus he has taken over the family business – a funeral home. The title of the show comes from the fact that within the family it is referred to as the “fun home.”
But you can sense that all is not perfection, even if the adult Alison hasn’t told us as much. Dad strives for perfection and can be both loving and demanding of his children; plus he and Mom’s relationship seems somewhat distant. Because the story is told out of order, we learn that Dad has a secret life; he is attracted to men and periodically acts on it.
He is also insistent that he is always right, demeaning the drawings that the young Alison makes, the literary opinions of his teenage daughter and even views the adult Alison’s graphic novels as nothing more than comic books.
It is when Alison is in college that the proverbial shit hits the fan. Alison, 18 and away from home for the first time, begins to realize that she is a lesbian. She remembers as the 8 year old being fascinated and attracted to the “butch” truck driver she saw in a diner. As she is coming to terms with this – she is comically awkward – her dad’s life is unraveling. He his past is catching up with him and his marriage is in deep trouble. He ends his life by walking in front of a truck.
That’s the story, but because it is told in a non-chronological manner, it is often difficult to know when something happened. When did Dad get first caught and sentenced to see a psychiatrist? How old was Alison during the bicentennial trip to NYC when he leaves the three children asleep to go cruising?
Yet, while at times Fun Home can be confusing, it is also moving. Bechdel and Kron have created characters that you care about and that you can recognize.
The three actors playing Alison at different ages are all terrific: Carly Gold as “Small Alison,” Abby Corrigan as “Medium Alison” and Kate Shindel as Alison, who also serves as the narrator.
Broadway veteran Robert Petkoff shows us all of the dimension of Bruce, the father. Susan Monz has a more difficult time with the role of the mother, Helen. The role is less central to the story and depends more on non-verbal than lines.
All three Alisons and Petkoff have excellent voices and they put over all the songs.
The program does not list the individual songs. Several stand out despite that. The young Alison and her brothers do a terrific mock TV commercial for the funeral home, “Come to the Fun Home.” Bruce’s final song, “Edges of the World” is also moving.
This short (about 95 minutes) production has more than 25 songs. They often seem to blend into each other, so looking at a list of the songs, it is hard to recall specific songs.
The touring production features an excellent set (by David Zinn) and lighting (by Ben Stanton). The sound design by Kai Harada masters the tendency at the Bushnell for the sound to blast and be mushy. But there were still lyrics that were difficult to understand.
Fun Home is an example of modern musicals that address current contemporary issues. It will appeal to those who want their musicals “real.” A friend who had seen the show in NYC said that a second viewing made it more understandable. I found it touching, in part due to the cating of Shindel and Petkoff.
Tickets are available at the Bushnell or 860-987-5900.