BWW Review: 2016-2017 Broadway Series Opens With Compelling FUN HOME
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
As the lights come up on FUN HOME, the musical drama which is now on stage at the Connor Palace, Allison, a young adult, relates a tale of her childhood in the song, "It All Comes Back."
She is around 10 and relates a memory of demanding that her father play airplane with her, one of the few experiences she shares with her father. Her father's attention is on a box of silver plates and a tarnished tea pot. And, as is the pattern between this father and his children, he ignores her or, when he is focused on the children, he becomes obsessive in his demands.
This is a troubled father. This a struggling daughter.
Through the story we follow the path of Alison Bechdel of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, as she goes from being a tween, through her experiences at Oberlin College, where her realization of her homosexuality evolves, to her becoming aware of her father's life as a closeted homosexual, to his ultimate suicide and her full acknowledgement that, as the closing song of the musical states, "Every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him." The words are accompanied by one of Bechdel's comics illustrating young Alison being held aloft by her father. Fade to black!
Poignant songs expose the frustration of living in fun home.
Songs such as "Welcome to Our House on Maple, Street," (a visit to the family home/funeral home by a visitor from the local historical society), "Come to Fun Home" (Young Alison and her brothers, John and Christian, act out a commercial for the funeral home while playing in a casket), and "Raincoat of Love," (small Alison fantasizing about what it would be like if her family was as happy as TV's "Partridge Family".)
In the song "Not Too Bad," Alison expresses her anxiety about starting college, while in the delightful "Changing My Major," Alison expresses her falling for Joan, her lesbian lover.
Alison's mother attempts to cope with her ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand existence by escaping from reality through her piano playing as illustrated by "Helen's Étude."
We watch as Bruce has contact with a series of young men, is arrested, but continues to pursue these fleeting contacts. Each is a band aid to patch up his frustration with his life. Agitation finally results in his suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming bus ("Edges of the World). Alison reminisces about her past in "Flying Away."
Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist who came to national attention via her long-running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For." She combined her life story and her comic strip style in the graphic memoir, FUN HOME. It is the adoption of this book that went on to become the musical which was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical. The Broadway show, which opened in March, 2015, closed on September 10, 2016.
The original book was controversial. In October, 2006, an attempt was made to have FUN HOME removed from the Marshall, Missouri Public Library due to its "graphic" content. In 2008, an instructor at University of Utah made the book a reading in her course. This was followed by an attempt by a student group to have the book removed from the course's syllabus. In 2013 a conservative group challenged the inclusion of the book as a reading selection for freshman at the College of Charleston. The issue became so heated that the South Carolina legislature attempted to cut the college's funding because "this book trampled on freedom of conservatives." The issue was only resolved when the state Senate voted to restore the funding, but redirect the funds towards the study of the United States Constitution and The Federalist Papers." As lately as 2015, several students at Duke University objected to the book on moral and/or religious grounds.
Cleveland is the first stop on FUN HOME's national tour. The production team has been in residence in PlayhouseSquare since mid-September, rehearsing and refining the show.
The production is of the highest quality. In New York the show was staged in the round, with the audience on the sides of the stage. The local production is done on a proscenium stage. Having seen both versions, I believe that the touring show is much clearer and the scenery helped give a visual quality to many of the scenes. Of course, the intimate show would have been better viewed in a theatre the size of the Allen or the Hanna, but that was economically impossible.
Some may find the three Alisons confusing at the start. But quickly it becomes apparent that adult Alison (Kat Shindle), Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) and Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) are the same person at different stages of life. What may be a little off-setting is that Baldacchino and Corrigan have the same body build and basic coloring, while Shindle looks nothing like them. The Small and Medium Alison have the same effervescence, while Shindle is much more serious. All three Alisons had fine singing voices.
Robert Petkoff is properly frustrated as the troubled Bruce. Many will feel pity for this man who is a victim of society's attitude toward gay men, especially in the era in which Bruce was brought up. His lasting effect on the members of his family are readily apparent.
Susan Moniz presents a wife and mother who finds herself having to decide how to be a supportive spouse and good mother, while being unable to take the action she probably should have early in the marriage.
Karen Eilbacher (Joan, Alison's lesbian lover), Robert Hager (portraying the young men Bruce pursues), Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador (Alison's younger brothers) are all believable in their roles.
The settings, lighting and costumes all work to enhance Sam Gold's sensitive and focused directing. The orchestra is excellent.
The only technical difficulty was a sound system which failed to allow for consistent hearing of the cast.
Side note: Caroline Murrah, Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program 2016 graduate, is a standby for Medium Alison and Joan.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Tony winner, FUN HOME, gets a well-conceived, emotionally primed production. The touring company should be greeted on each stop of its journey with positive kudos. This is a dramatic message musical which deserves the accolades which it has won. It's a must see, with the caveat that audience members are aware of the subject matter.
Tickets for FUN HOME, which runs through October 22, 2016 at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org. (Key Bank series productions will run 3-weeks rather than the previous season's two weeks.)