The life of graphic novelist Alison Bechdel comes to life is music and drama, traced back from adulthood as a lesbian author to childhood as the daughter of a closeted gay father.
A musical with all the dramatic richness of a memorable play opened at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday — a rare sighting that could induce a theater critic to genuflect if not erupt in a chorus of hallelujahs.
“Fun Home,” the Tony Award-winning show based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, combines textured character psychology and nuanced storytelling with the enchantment of a score that can go from melancholy to zany in a heartbeat. Fun but never frivolous, this musical by Jeanine Tesori (who composed the music) and Lisa Kron (who wrote the book and lyrics) balances music and drama so perfectly that at times they are as indistinguishable as the sea and sky of a distant horizon.
Shimmering with a Proustian glow, “Fun Home” is an investigation into the history of a fascinatingly eccentric and profoundly troubled family. The Bechdels are unhappy in their own unique way, but it’s an unhappiness that even happy families will be able to recognize. Picture perfect on the outside, they are partly shattered within.
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Alison (Kate Shindle), a lesbian cartoonist, stands at her desk, making cartoon sketches of scenes from her childhood in small-town Pennsylvania. It’s her way of digging deep into the mystery of her father’s suicide, of understanding from her vantage as an adult gay daughter the reasons her gay father opted for a closeted life that was so destructive not only to himself but to everyone in the household.
And what a household Bruce (Robert Petkoff), an aesthete with dangerous secrets, has created. A popular English teacher with a passion for restoring old houses, he also runs the Bechdel Funeral Home, lavishing on corpses the same attention to detail he pays to his wallpaper and mouldings. Bruce takes enormous pride in the way he has marshaled his wife and children into an army of dusters and polishers. But his tyrannical perfectionism, a vain attempt at keeping his own internal chaos at bay, confounds his daughter, who so badly wants his approval, even if the girly dresses that he demands she wear on special occasions violate her more boyish self-image.
The musical triples the role of Alison, so that the adult character can gaze upon herself at various points in the past. The emotion driving her quest to understand her history is gorgeously captured in an autumnal musical leitmotif of reeds and strings. We watch Shindle’s Alison peering into her own scattered trove of memories as she re-creates her autobiography in the graphic novel form that allows her to process, in the intuitive manner of a psychological detective, what happened to her family. (Shindle, though a bit stiff when singing, vividly anchors the production with her searching presence.)
The delightful Alessandra Baldacchino portrays Small Alison, a fun-seeking girl who enjoys playing airplane with her dad, hoisting herself into flight on his legs in a rare moment of physical closeness. (Carly Gold takes over the role at select performances.) Young but precocious enough to sense that something’s amiss at home, Small Alison tries to lose herself in childhood antics. She romps around the “fun home,” the family’s nickname for the funeral parlor, hiding in the coffins with her brothers, Christian (Pierson Salvador) and John (Lennon Nate Hammond), and composing with them a jumpy Jackson 5-inspired jingle to advertise the macabre family trade.
Abby Corrigan is perfectly cast as Medium Alison, the college student who tentatively comes to terms with her sexual identity at Oberlin College, where she meets the friendly and forthright Joan (Karen Eilbacher), promptly falls in love and starts singing, in the show’s most wonderfully giddy number, that she’s “changing her major to Joan.” Alison’s awakening to her true nature tenderly reveals the fear, shame, guilt, hope and desire that intermingle as a young gay person moves hesitantly toward self-acceptance.
The production, directed by Tony winner Sam Gold, preserves the haunting human complexity that made “Fun Home” such an artistic breakthrough on Broadway. There have been plenty of successful dark and bittersweet musicals before, but not since Sondheim have tragedy and comedy been so illuminatingly entwined.
The show, which began off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2013, also pushes the envelope in terms of content, but the emotional honesty of the show gives it a universal accessibility. This is a proud lesbian musical that also happens to be one of the best new musicals of our era.
Petkoff, rising to the challenge of the show’s most difficult role, bravely doesn’t try to sweeten Bruce’s volatile temperament. As a father, Bruce means well, but he’d rather be upstairs making love to Roy (Robert Hager), whom he’s hired to do odd jobs around the house. Repression, even more than the sexual misdeeds that inevitably get him into trouble, corrodes his soul. Petkoff traces the deterioration in Bruce so convincingly that we can’t help maintaining some sympathy for a man whose life is like a crumbling house quickly falling beyond repair.
Susan Moniz’s Helen, Bruce’s neglected wife and Alison’s jangled mother, is stern, a bit aloof and palpably sad over the state of her marriage. She might seem oblivious to her husband’s proclivities, but she knows as much as she wants to know. Tesori and Kron give the character a song toward the end of the show that explains the way life can become unrecognizable after “days and days and days” of compromises and domestic routines. Moniz powerfully delivers this anthem to all women who have felt complicit in their own erasure.
David Zinn’s scenic design for the touring production can’t match what Zinn accomplished on Broadway for the show’s in-the-round staging at Circle in the Square Theatre. But the quaint charm of the Bechdel home luminously comes through. And the visible presence of the orchestra on a raised platform at the back of the stage that is also used by the actors further integrates the music into the drama — which is only fitting for a musical that (with the exception of a few splashy pastiche numbers) treats the songs as just another form of character expression.
Performed on the Tony Awards telecast the year that “Fun Home” won for best musical, “Ring of Keys” is perhaps the most famous song in a show that, in keeping with its seamless vision, doesn’t even provide a list of titles in the program. Sung with adorable fervor by Baldacchino, the number is about Small Alison’s identification with a butch delivery woman whose difference thrills her and reminds her of her own. By the time this song arrives, we already know so much about Alison, having seen her at various stages of her life. But still we listen and eagerly learn more about her story, which will grow large enough to encompass her father’s tragedy and her own brilliant survival.
Spun from a graphic memoir of literary genius, “Fun Home” clears a path of originality for the American musical. This is the third time I’ve seen the show, and my admiration keeps growing.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦‘Fun Home’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends April 1 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $25-$125 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
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