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BWW Review: Stellar Touring Production of FUN HOME Plays the National Theatre

BWW Review:  Stellar Touring Production of FUN HOME Plays the National Theatre
Cast of FUN HOME (By Joan Marcus)

Nearly two years ago, I saw Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron's (book and lyrics) Tony Award-winning production of Fun Home on Broadway following its transfer from the Public Theater downtown. While I certainly admired the artistry and I liked many of the performances, I felt strangely detached from what was happening onstage at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Fast-forward to today as the national tour of Fun Home plays DC's historic National Theatre. I witnessed a stellar and - dare I say - pretty flawless production that completely and utterly immersed me into Alison Bechdel's world.

When the story begins, we see Adult Alison (Kate Shindle) writing a graphic novel (on which the musical is based). She's trying to figure out some missing pieces about her life, and more specifically, her father. As the show progresses, her very personal story unfolds before us in non-linear fragments. She doesn't trust her memories so she relies on memorabilia from her past to piece her story together from when she was a young child (played by Alessandra Baldacchino) and a young adult coming into her own (played by Abby Corrigan). However, there are still missing pieces.

As a small child growing up in small town Pennsylvania, Alison wanted very much to have a close relationship with her father Bruce (Robert Petkoff). Bruce sometimes showed interest in her and her brothers Christian (Pierson Salvador) and John (Lennon Nate Hammond) - and they shared a love of art and literature - but he was often very critical of what she did and what she wore ("boy clothes" as opposed to pink frilly dresses). Other things also occupied his time. He ran a funeral home (dubbed "Fun Home" by the family); taught English at the local high school; and was very much into history and house restoration. He was also involved in other things that young Alison was not aware of at the time. These extracurricular activities put great strain on his marriage to Helen (Susan Moniz).

Some of the mysteries surrounding her father (and his relationship with a variety of men, played by Robert Hager) became clearer when Alison begins to attend Oberlin College. Alison's world - which was, up to that point, very much defined by her family and small town life - opened up before her when she met Joan (a cool and collected Karen Eilbacher) outside the Gay Student Union and began to explore a relationship with her. After she came out to her parents in a letter, she learned some truths about her father. These truths lead to a lot of questions that she still grapples with as an adult writer. While Alison's world was expanding, her own father's world was shrinking and becoming darker. It eventually got to be too much and Bruce ends it, a decision that still haunts Alison. With his death, more questions arise without answers. Alison and her dad never have the deep conversation they really needed to have.

These questions - the ones that haunt Alison as a child and up to her adult years - provide rich source material for Kron's deeply emotional and witty lyrics. They are perfectly put to Tesori's sophisticated and varied music, enriched by John Clancy's orchestrations, which are well played by an onstage orchestra (directed by Micah Young). Fun Home is ultimately a musical where the music, book, and lyrics work hand-in-hand to bring us into the world of our characters in a particularly seamless and detailed way. Lighter moments like when Alison and her brothers tried to make their own funeral home commercial ("Welcome to the Fun Home," with fun choreography by Danny Mefford) or when Alison discovers the pleasure of being intimate with Joan ("Changing My Major," humorously sung by Corrigan) are musicalized. Yet, so too are the more challenging moments in the family's history. Deeply satisfying numbers like "Days and Days," and "Telephone Wire," which are exquisitely sung by Moniz and Shindle, respectively, shed insight into the pain caused by having more questions than answers and more secrets than open conversation. "Ring of Keys" (delivered with an emotionally nuanced performance by Alessandra Baldacchino) is another perfect blend of music and lyrics. It sheds tremendous insight on Alison's identity as it was being shaped from a young age.

The national tour also benefits from a sublime cast of actor-singers. Each cast member is equipped to deal with the full range of emotions and complex relationships the story demands. It was unsurprising to me that Kate Shindle commanded the stage and sang the songs like few other of her contemporaries could (she's excellent in everything), but I was particularly impressed by Abby Corrigan. Wholly believable with a knack for dry comedy, she shows tremendous promise as a musical theater actress. I look to see more from her - as well as the extremely capable Alessandra Baldacchino - in the future. The equal skill level of all three actresses playing Alison allowed me to fully believe they were the same people at different stages of life. Additionally, Petkoff proves adept at silencing the hidden rage. I appreciated many of the nuances in his fully committed performance as well as that of Susan Moniz.

While the cast is probably one of the reasons I was so drawn in to the story, the staging also really helps. On Broadway, the show was staged in the round. On tour, it's staged proscenium style, which really helps bring the audience into the chaotic world and allows the set (David Zinn, who also did the costumes) to be more integral to building the novel and ultimately telling the story. I felt and absorbed every emotional moment when I couldn't come to close to even doing that when it played Broadway.

Put bluntly? As directed by Sam Gold, this is must-see musical theater in our area, and definitely one of the top five shows I have seen all season long.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

FUN HOME plays the National Theatre - 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in Washington, DC - through May 13. For tickets, call the box office at 202-628-6161 or purchase them online.

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