'Fun Home': Theater Review
The 2015 Tony Award winner for best musical arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles with a strong touring company amid Trump administration attacks on LGBT rights.
When it arrived on Broadway in spring 2015, Fun Home seemed a dark horse for commercial success. It was hard to imagine tourists storming the box office to see a coming-of-age musical about a lesbian and her repressed gay father, who teaches literature and runs the family funeral home on the side. Based on the graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, the show ran for a year and half, and took five Tony Awards out of nine nominations. Sam Gold's production arrives in Los Angeles with its strengths intact, thanks to a rock-solid cast.
“It All Comes Back” is an appropriate title to start this saga steeped in memory, as 9-year-old Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) and her father Bruce (Robert Petkoff) pour through a box of antiques. The number highlights composer Jeanine Tesori’s virtuosity, introducing the cast through choruses and harmonies, as well as finding balance in an upbeat tone tinged with bleakness.
Lisa Kron’s book focuses on Alison, performed by three actors from girlhood to middle-age. The eldest, played by Kate Shindle (Legally Blonde), narrates, lurking in the background until the final few scenes when she steps into the action, bringing poignancy to her song, “Telephone Wires,” about her final conversation with her closeted father. He is the show’s other half, a gay man struggling as if in a straightjacket as we watch his gradual dissolution and suicide.
While there’s not much new about dysfunctional family coming-of-age tales, Kron and Tesori (the first all-women team to win the best musical Tony) offer an emphatically original adaptation of familiar tropes.
The early show-stopper is “Come to the Fun Home,” a Jackson Five pastiche performed in and around a casket by a robust trio of kids — Baldacchino, Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador as siblings goofing around. It’s hard not to get a rise out of an audience with cute kids moving to Danny Mefford’s punchy choreography, but there’s no doubt Tesori earns her laurels with “Changing My Major,” sung by teenage Alison (an outstanding Abby Corrigan), whose sexuality is in full flower as she celebrates her first encounter with a more self-aware lesbian, Joan (Karen Eilbacher). Corrigan seems to channel the nerd in all of us, awkward and painfully self-conscious, as she counterbalances Bruce’s anguish.
Joan, like Helen, Alice’s long-suffering mother (Susan Moniz), is an underwritten role, but at least the latter has her own song, “Days and Days,” about a life wasted looking after her husband.
As the tortured Bruce, Petkoff inherits the play’s most difficult role (originated by Tony winner Michael Cerveris), a man struggling within the confines of a lifestyle that doesn’t fit him. He loses himself in younger men when he can; otherwise he spends his days restoring an old house, working tirelessly to raise it from dilapidation and dust off its hidden glory.
Petkoff keeps the character sympathetic despite the fact that he’s occasionally downright nasty, taking out his frustration on his family. He never wallows in self-pity, even as his cage consumes him. In the end, he goes out strong, bringing unbridled pathos to the finale, “Flying Away.”
Fun Home might have been a more comfortable fit in New York at The Public, where it premiered off-Broadway, or even the 776-seat Circle in the Square, where it transferred, rather than the 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre. This is not a big splashy show, but more like a chamber musical, an intimate production with a seven-piece band planted upstage, behind David Zinn’s sparse set, which deftly uses an antique settee to represent a turn-of-the-century manse, or a desk and cot to suggest a dorm room.
When Bechdel heard they wanted to make a musical of her black-and-white cartoon, she had a hard time seeing her characters breaking out in song. But of course her story has the stuff of many great musicals — romance, passion and death. This one happens to be short on spectacle but long on wit, originality and unabashed humanity.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Robert Petkoff, Susan Moniz, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan, Alessandra Baldacchino, Karen Eilbacher, Robert Hager, Lennon Nate Hammond, Pierson Salvador, Anthony Fortino, Amanda Naughton, Sofia Trimarchi, Michael Winther, Carly Gold
Director: Sam Gold
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Book & lyrics: Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Set & costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Music direction: Chris Fenwick
Orchestrations: John Clancy
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Produced by The Public Theater
Presented by Fox Theatricals, Barbara Whitman, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Tom Casserly, Paula Marie Black, Latitude Link, Terry Schnuck/Jack Lane, The Forstalls, Nathan Vernon, Mint Theatricals, Elizabeth Armstrong, Jam Theatricals, Delman Whitney, Kristin Caskey & Mike Isaacson