As Leo Tolstoy famously observed: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The family at the center of “Fun Home” — the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel — is unquestionably unhappy in multiple ways. Yet in its pain there also is a certain strange (and at times downright twisted) beauty. And that beauty is captured in Jeanine Tesori’s chamber music-like score, and in the book and lyrics of Lisa Kron, which are a similarly lovely, poignant mix of the colloquial and the poetic.
When: Through Nov. 13
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $25 – $113
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission
To be sure, “Fun Home” — now making a stop at the Oriental Theatre in its first national touring production, which has been artfully directed by Sam Gold (who staged both its initial Public Theatre and Broadway editions) — is a contemporary “identity-forging” musical. But along with being the portrait of a young woman coming to terms with her closeted father, her parents’ profoundly troubled marriage, and her own coming out as a lesbian, “Fun Home” is the portrait of an artist. It is the anatomy of a storyteller whose verbal and visual sensibilities (as well as her sexual identity) surfaced in early childhood, and were painfully honed by all that was not said by her emotionally trapped, artistically oriented parents who lived in an era of anguished suppression.
It is Alison (the ideally probing Kate Shindle as the successful cartoonist-writer in early middle age), who serves as the narrator of the show, and tries to fit together the pieces of her life growing up in Pennsylvania. She does so by conjuring both her 10-year-old self as “Small Alison” (the excellent Alessandra Baldacchino, perhaps too delicately pretty to grow into her tough, older incarnations), and as “Medium Alison” (Abby Corrigan, touchingly awkward, honest and funny) in her early Oberlin College days, when she meets the more liberated Joan (Karen Eilbacher, with just the right level of confidence), experiences her sexual awakening and comes out to her parents by means of a letter.
It is not long after this, as she tells us early on in the show, that her father, Bruce (Robert Petkoff, ideally tempestuous and often creepy, who gives a fervent rendering of his big anthem, “Edges of the World”), committed suicide by walking into traffic. And it is Bechdel’s relationship with her obsessive father — whom she adored on some level, but could never reach in any satisfying way — that is at the core of “Fun Home.”
Of course there was a reason for Bruce’s love-hate relationship with Alison and her two brothers (played in the most beguiling way by child actors Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond). As ultimately revealed by her artistic mother, Helen (Chicago veteran Susan Moniz in a perfectly tuned performance capped by an exquisite rendering of “Days and Days”), throughout their marriage Bruce had relationships with young men, at least one of them a minor (all played here by Robert Hager).
Yet her father’s controlling personality and outbursts were countered by a certain elusive charm. Along with working as a high school English teacher (a dangerous profession given his proclivities), and running a funeral home business he inherited (playfully referred to as Fun Home by his children, who cavorted in silk-lined caskets), he was a master of architectural restoration. And, irony or ironies, he perfected a museum-quality Victorian-style home for the family.
All this unfolds in just 100 intermission-less minutes that never flag, although from time to time some of the lyrics get lost. Enhancing the show’s intimacy is the fact that its small but superb orchestra, under the music direction of Micah Young (and featuring exceptional orchestrations by John Clancy), is perched at the back of designer David Zinn’s intriguing, strongly horizontal set. I look forward to seeing “Fun Home” in a smaller space some day, but for now, as the song says, “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue.”
Note: Carly Gold will play the role of “Small Alison’ at certain performances.