Michael L. Quintos
Riveting, powerful and beautifully poignant at every step, "FUN HOME"—the Tony Award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel's 2006 autobiographical graphic memoir—is one of those rare, great stage musicals that represents an astonishingly unique point-of-view that is somehow miraculously universal and inclusive at the same time. Armed with a moving, deeply personal story that's filled with heartache and heartbreak, yet with still plenty of room to be profoundly heartwarming, the musical's truly excellent national tour production continues performances at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through August 6.
If you haven't seen this musical yet, do yourself a favor and get tickets while it's here.
Featuring piercing book and lyrics from Lisa Kron and euphonious music from Jeanine Tesori, "FUN HOME" is inspired by real events that happened to cartoonist Bechdel—particularly two specific stages of her past that she feels may have helped shape the person that she is in the present, and perhaps have also had a significant impact in her family. In looking back at her life, she is hoping that with deeper recollection and examination of these specific moments, they will lead to answers to some burning questions she has about her tumultuous relationship with her father that still haunt her today.
As audience members file into the theater, they will notice that there is no curtain, just a barely furnished bi-level stage where the terrific-sounding in-house band led by musical director Micah Young is tucked away downstage. Suddenly, with just a few notes from the band, in scurries Adult Alison—played by current Actors' Equity Association president Kate Shindle—wearing the same hipster spectacles and closed-cropped hairstyle the real-life Bechdel also sports.
Now in her 40's, she is in the midst of writing (well, drawing) her life story, which time-jumps from her seemingly happy home life in suburban Beech Creek, Pennsylvania as a curious young 10-year-old (played by the adorable Carly Gold) living with her two brothers and her parents, to her later life as a still curious 19-year-old Oberlin College undergrad (played by the impressive Abby Corrigan) just discovering that she is, in fact, a lesbian.
But the biggest question mark Adult Alison can't seem to shake in her reminiscing is, of course, her mysterious father Bruce (the superb Robert Petkoff), the distant yet highly intimidating family patriarch who taught English part-time at the high school and also ran the family business: a funeral home, which the Bechdel kids endearingly refer to as the "fun home" for short (get it?). She reveals quite matter-of-factly early on that four months after "leaping out of the closet," her father—himself a not-so-secret homosexual—stepped in front of a truck and may have killed himself.
As young (Small) Alison, she observes a father who barely engages with her let alone indicate any affection for her, at least in the way most fathers do with their pre-teen. He is, however, quite demanding and very particular about appearances, and how he wants certain things to look… from the way Alison dresses and the way she spends her leisure time, to the way their family house—a painstakingly restored ornate Victorian house—needs to always be meticulously perfect. He actually gets more excited over antiquated objects rather than the actual people around him. He shows more affection to a piece of linen damask than he does his own family. I guess this makes him perfectly suited to working with silent corpses and making them look pristine.
For coed (Medium) Alison, Bruce sends her more grown-up daughter books on philosophy while having awkward phone conversations that span different intellectual subjects, still unable to fully engage on a personal level. Such trivial things are easier to converse about, one can guess. For her part, Medium Alison jots down banal notes about their relationship in her journal. And strangely, Bruce all but glazes over Medium Alison's brave confessional letter that says she is gay and in love with a fellow student, Joan (Victoria Janicki).
But… surprise (but, not really)! She soon learns of Bruce's double life.
It is, however, apparently not much of a secret to his wife Helen (a stirring Susan Moniz), Alison's distressed mom—a former actress now working on her dissertation—whose only recourse is to feign happiness by silencing her sadness. Partially checked out and forcing herself to stay in an unhappy marriage, she gets used to turning the other cheek, then going about her own chores while reluctantly observing her husband's flirtations with various man-boys that seem to always show up at the house—from a fit former student to a random guy that comes to "help out" around the house. Eventually, one of these flirtations gets him into real trouble, forcing him to go see a psychiatrist as punishment/treatment.
Soon after coming out, Alison—hoping, perhaps, that she now has something much more substantial in common to talk about with his dad—is still unable to share a heart-to-heart with her dad during a visit home from college (with girlfriend in tow). Her mom, on the other hand, confesses tearfully about having to put up with it all these years.
As Bruce's realities start to implode, we witness Alison's father and his sudden death, which may have been a suicide. Alison, naturally, can't help but wonder…is her coming out and his suicide interconnected somehow? Did her act of pride lead to his act of shame?
Emotionally complex and intriguingly layered, "FUN HOME" is a 100-minute metaphor-heavy musical that touches on surface facades—those who use them to shield truths in order to try achieving a fulfilling life, and those who shed them and actually come closer to living a more fulfilling one.
Bruce, of course, is the biggest practitioner of the former, a man caught in a time and place that told him not to reveal his true self. Instead, he surrounds himself with a house full of precious, artistically valuable objet d'arts that he is more attached to than to his own family. Alas, the family has a purpose, though: its an army of free and willing museum custodians, all helping to keep Bruce's show palace a good spit-and-shine at any given moment.
For their part, Helen and her kids are wary not to upset Dad, making sure that the Bechdel's museum-like home is kept up to his exacting standards.
"Like chaos never happens and is never seen," they sing. "A volume out of place could start a third world war!"
His attachment to such beautiful things is clearly his compensation for not being able to fully express himself outwardly in another, more visceral way. And yet, lookee there, he manages to satisfy his other hidden urge quite frequently anyway—so much so that his own oft neglected wife is willing to just tolerate it rather than admit she's in a loveless marriage and have wasted her life being ignored and being taken for granted, minimizing her own wants and needs for his sake. Ultimately though, no amount of lovely things can be enough for a man living a lie all his adult life.
It's certainly a fate Alison seems to be trying to avoid falling into herself. Unlike her father, Alison is able to express her feelings with a modicum of bravery, despite its surface awkwardness. We see this in her boastful, so-happy-she-could-scream-it-with-a-megaphone pride over her meet-cute turned one-night-stand with Joan (her coming home with Alison for a visit obviously signals that they have progressed later to an out-in-the-open relationship). Alison is living her authentic self, something her father felt he wasn't ever able to do.
Additionally, "FUN HOME" is also a stern cautionary tale about the harsh consequences of non-communication. In certain cases, we entrap ourselves in these cycles of not telling others how we feel in the most honest of ways. Bruce deceived everyone. Helen kept her feelings to herself that it made her finally blow up, much, much too late. Alison almost didn't get what she wanted from Joan at first. Alison didn't even get the closure she needed from her father, but instead settling to remember her father in a rare moment of "perfect balance."
Under the smartly purposeful direction of Sam Gold, "FUN HOME" whips through a swift, chronologically jumbled puzzle of moments and revelations and then organizes them into an emotional drama with fair amounts of very welcome, well-timed joy. While, sure, "FUN HOME" isn't exactly the happiest, most feel-good musical around, there are enough breaks in the sadness to keep the audience entertained.
Gold's Small Alison is clearly having a blast with her little bros Christian (Luké Barbara Smith) and John (Henry Boshart) during the too-cute "Come To The "FUN HOME"," while Corrigan's Medium Alison enjoys a moment of euphoria during "Changing My Major." The disco-sparkle of "Raincoat of Love" perfectly contrasts with the tumultuous nature of the story at the very moment it arrives. Even the show's signature ballad "Ring of Keys" has a layer of buoyant joy bursting from its belted notes.
But it's the heartbreaking songs laced with deep cuts of melancholy and subtext that keep the audience at the edge of their seat to make this one of the most stirring contemporary musicals today. "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," "Maps," and "Telephone Wire" revealed more to me during this recent visit to the musical than it did the first time I saw it. And I just about fell apart in sobs much more this time around hearing Moniz sing through the devastating "Days and Days" while Petkoff's "Edges of the World" was a shudder-inducing manic explosion of fear and sorrow.
And, yes, the cast is stupendous. I can listen to Corrigan's beautiful singing voice all day long, she was that good. Moniz and Petkoff offer strong, excellent musicality paired perfectly with their incredible acting prowess (even the subtlest of facial expressions from Moniz are overloaded with context). Pint-sized Gold sounds delightful in every song, particularly in "Ring of Keys," the show's signature "aha" moment. And finally, Shindle, blessed with impressive vocal control and a commanding presence both as an omniscient narrator and the vulnerable "girl" in an awkward car ride with her dad, is the show's beacon home. As she examines her life right before her eyes, she is also, in a way, the audience's calming guide and docent in this musical museum, taking the time to sort of tell us that everything will be okay in the end.
Without fanfare, fancy visuals or outlandish theatrical setups, "FUN HOME" also seems to be all about theatrical transparency, even though, in a not-so-subtle contrast, the characters in the show themselves are almost always hiding their true selves from outward exposure. Zinn's simple exposed brick-lined set, portable furniture pieces, and an always-seen terrific in-house band tucked in the back reiterates this openness, and also helps recreate the theater-in-the-round scenario it employed during its Broadway run. Later towards the end of the musical, a (SPOILER ALERT) stunningly opulent Victorian home set is revealed and—wow. So that's what Bruce was doing. Kudos also go to Ben Stanton for the fabulous lighting, and Zinn (again) for the contextually relevant costumes.
Overall, "FUN HOME" is utterly moving and achingly heartfelt with every scene—and feels genuinely authentic. While I understand that this is all told through Alison's filtered lenses, in the end, I actually feel like Bruce's story is given equal weight with Alison's... although she tries to find answers to the mystery of his father (which she never really gets completely wrapped up in a bow), the fact that Bruce remains a somewhat unsolved enigma and mystery is probably the best thing for her—in order to heal and to be well without her recovery hinging primarily on solving the riddle of his dad. In spite of a fairly dysfunctional upbringing, Alison turned out to be a pretty darn great adult.
But more than anything, "FUN HOME" can be a thoughtful reminder of how important it is for people to live their truth, no matter how hard it may be for others to take or to understand. Sure, it was much more difficult to do so back in Small Alison's days (or, well, Medium Alison's days, too)… but nothing is more fulfilling than living life authentically. In this instance, we are also reminded about how much more alike we all are as feeling, emotional human beings, than we are different from one another.
Thanks, Alison, for allowing us to peer briefly into your world.
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Photos from the National Tour of "FUN HOME" - A NEW MUSICAL by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in BroadwayWorld.
Performances of the National Tour of "FUN HOME" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 6, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.