Review: 'Fun Home' at the Ahmanson Theatre

Review: 'Fun Home' at the Ahmanson Theatre

Erin Conley

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

Don’t be misled by the sight of three adorable children bouncing around and singing “come to the fun home.” In this case, ‘fun’ is short for ‘funeral,’ and while little about the tragic tale could actually be described as fun, it can certainly be described as some of the very best storytelling modern musical theater has to offer. 

Fun Home, which won five 2015 Tony Awards including Best Musical, is based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel memoir of the same name. Notable for featuring Broadway’s first lesbian protagonist, it follows adult Alison (Kate Shindle) as she looks back on her life in an attempt to understand her father, Bruce (Robert Petkoff), a deeply troubled man who committed suicide when she was a freshman in college. Her reflections center on two periods of her life, and two younger actresses play the character at different ages. Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) is about 10, an age when she first began to question her own sexuality and really clash with her hostile, overbearing father, and Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) is an 18-year-old college freshman coming out of the closet in the months just prior to Bruce’s death. Although Alison remains blissfully unaware until her mother, Helen (Susan Moniz), reacts poorly to her own coming out, Bruce is a barely closeted gay man who has repeatedly gotten in trouble for having secret relationships with men, some of them underage. Adult Alison desperately wants to unlock some understanding of the man she never fully knew, and in turn answer the question she’s been dreading—if her own coming out played a role in his suicide. 

Everything about this musical resembles a raw nerve laid bare, daring the viewer to dive right in, for better or for worse. Bechdel’s deeply honest story, adapted here with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, is remarkably genuine. Her life is an open book presented with no abandon. While many humans have a tendency to sugarcoat the past when reflecting back, Fun Home does no such thing, and Alison presents every deeply painful moment without hesitation. As I felt when I first saw the show on Broadway over a year ago, it is a musical where the music feels very secondary. You will find no song list in the playbill, which makes sense because rather than being notable benchmarks in the production, the songs simply fold into the story. There is relatively little music, and while it is easy to see a world where this could have been a play, something about the inclusion of songs makes sense considering the more whimsical graphic novel form the story originated in. 

On Broadway, Fun Home played at the Circle in the Square Theatre, a 776-seat theater-in-the-round that is one of Broadway’s smaller houses. Having wondered if the move from the in-the-round stage would put such an intimate show at a disadvantage, particularly in often cavernous touring houses, I was pleasantly surprised to see the creative team used the more traditional staging as a creative opportunity that paid off in spades. Without giving away a reveal that has many layers and so much relevance to the plot, I will just say there is much more to David Zinn’s set than initially meets the eye, and as Alison’s perspective on her life, home, and family shifts, yours will as well. 

Directed by Sam Gold, enough cannot be said about how extraordinary this touring company is. As adult Alison, Shindle, a former Miss America and current Actors’ Equity president, is spectacular, bringing a wry self-awareness and emotional vulnerability to the story. While she gets to play only one of the character’s emotional turning points herself, when that moment comes, it is a doozy. Probably partially because she has the benefit of portraying the core of Alison’s journey, Corrigan was to me the standout of the cast, and there were no scenes more earnest and delightful than her falling for her first girlfriend, Joan (Karen Eilbacher). Baldacchino, whom I also saw on Broadway when she was an understudy, gives an adorable and surprisingly sophisticated performance and gets to sing the show’s best song, “Ring of Keys,” in which Alison describes her reaction the first time she saw a woman who was obviously a lesbian. In a very difficult role as a fairly despicable human being who regularly berates and neglects his own family while self-destructively breaking the law, Petkoff gives a bare, multidimensional performance. Rounding out the cast are Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond as Small Alison’s brothers and Robert Hager as several adult male roles, most notably Bruce’s various liaisons. 

With a tight running time of an hour and forty minutes, this is a rare musical with no missteps. Nothing is extraneous, there is just the right amount of lighthearted humor to balance out the emotions, and, most importantly, it is not the type of story you see on stage every day. Sure, it is not your traditional musical, and you likely won’t whistle the songs on your way home, but Fun Home is so much more than that. It is a crucial piece of theater for our time, and this production, which I felt surpassed the version I saw on Broadway, should not be missed. 

Fun Home runs at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through April 1st. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. The TodayTix app is also running a daily mobile lottery to win tickets for only $19.67. For information about tour stops beyond LA, including Des Moines, Pittsburgh, and DC, click here. 

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