SCHENECTADY — Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home” was a critical and popular success when first published in 2006. Exploring the relationship she had with her distant and troubled dad, who died somewhat of a puzzle to her, the story follows Bechdel’s non-linear journey through some difficult emotional terrain. Discovering shortly before he died that her dad was gay, the memoir is full of “what ifs,” “why didn’t we talk” and “if I only knew sooner things may have been different” moments. But far from being a downer, the memoir is an honest, humorous and powerful look back on a daughter coping with painful memories and lost opportunities.
“Fun Home” has now been adapted into a musical. With book and lyrics by playwright Lisa Kron and a score by composer Jeanine Tesori, Bechdel’s life story, which was heartfelt to begin with, has become richer, more visceral and deepened into a completely captivating theatrical experience.
The musical opens with 40-something Alison (Kate Shindle) standing at her drafting table haunted by something unfinished. It is not just a cartoon panel or caption, it is her relationship with her dad. Drifting back to her childhood growing up lesbian in small town Pennsylvania, her memory fills with people and events from the past. Living in the family-run funeral home is her distant and depressed mom, Helen (Susan Moriz), two younger brothers Christian (Luke Barbato Smith) and John (Henry Boshart) and her closeted, angry father Bruce (Robert Petkoff).
Tortured by his need to keep his sexual identity secret, Robert acts out in dangerous ways that affect not only himself, but the rest of his family.
To assist in narrating the scenes, there are three actors representing Alison at different ages.
There is Small Alison (Carly Gold), the young girl trying desperately to understand her remote and troubled dad; Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan), the college-aged young woman, starting the journey to embrace her lesbian identity, and Present Day Alison, who steps in and out of her remembered moments, struggling to caption it all.
Surprisingly, the memoir lends itself well to a musical adaptation. Tesori’s score and Kron’s lyrics could not be better suited to the Bechdel’s life story. The introspective moments of self doubt and realization are handled beautifully without cliché. Medium Alison’s song of connection with her new crush Joan (played with a lovely bit of swagger by Victoria Janicki), “Changing My Major,” packs a humorous, yet emotional punch, especially as delivered Corrigan. Moniz colors Helen’s song of explanation and resignation, “Days and Days,” with the perfect balance of pain and resentment. Robert’s final moment, “Edges of the World,” is given star turn by Petkoff, and Shindle’s re-examination of her journey so far, “Maps,” is delivered with heartfelt self–instruction.
But “Fun Home” isn’t always a dark home.
There is often joy in Alison’s reflections. Using their creative imagination for sass and parody, Small Alison, Christian and John perform for each other (and us) a hysterical 1970s pop-disco mock commercial for their family’s business — “Come to the Fun Home” — and it nearly stops the show cold 15 minutes into act one. If the DeFranco or Partridge Family did a musical ad for a funeral home, this is it. It is impossible NOT to laugh when a little kid is rocking out in full voice on top of a casket using a can of Pledge as a microphone. And what better way to escape from mom and dad’s screaming match happening in the other room than with some flashy clothes and a mirrored ball. “Raincoat of Love” is a perfect bubblegum wish for the unattainable — a stress free childhood — led by an irrepressible Robert Hager, (who portrays multiple roles throughout the evening), providing a Keith Partridge musical salve to drown out the unease.
I am quite sure that there is no finer song about the realization of self than “Ring of Keys.”
Brilliantly delivered by Gold, it’s a stunning capture of a moment, that instant when an answer arrives and it all begins to make sense. But it’s the final musical segment that Alison shares with her dad on “Car Ride to Nowhere” that lingers. Kron’s lyrics deftly express Alison’s frustration of her lack of action in taking the reins and helping her dad. Shindle and Petkoff explore these moments beautifully and honestly.
Originally produced on Broadway in the round, “Fun Home” has been re-designed and re-imagine by its original director, Tony winner Sam Gold, for the tour. While some may moan that the intimacy of the piece has been compromised with this change, rest easy.
The show’s emotional impact has not diminished in any way. “Fun Home” is a haunting and beautiful exploration of family, heart and personal discovery and this touring production is fantastic.