Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Fun Home
National Tour
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule


Karen Eilbacher, Abby Corrigan, Robert Petkoff,
and Susan Moniz

Photo by Joan Marcus
Hamilton notwithstanding, it's hard to think of another show that gives as much reason for optimism about Broadway becoming once again, as it was it the "Golden Age," a launching pad for significant new musical theater pieces.

Fun Home, Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori's (music) adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, is as original, moving and honest a musical as they come. It's a very specific story of the very specific circumstances of Bechdel's life—her journey toward discovery, acceptance and embracing of her same-sex orientation, as her closeted father was acting on his same-sex attraction in destructive ways. Yet, without ever stretching to be more than Bechdel's story, it resonates as a fable of the imperative to know and accept oneself and to live honestly. It's a piece that, while possessing lots of heart and humor, is uncompromising in its presentation of the pain within the family. Alison's father Bruce explains his sexual activity either as experimentation or at times mistakes that make him "bad." His wife Helen, though aware of the activity and troubled by it, stays in the marriage. Alison (shown at ages 10, 19 and 43 and played by three actresses of different ages) can't understand why her father is becoming irritable and increasingly distant from the family. In the depths of the pain it asks us to understand, it's not entirely easy to watch.

Fun Home has arrived in Chicago for a two-week stay just four weeks after the tour began in Cleveland. Amazingly, this intimate show—with a cast of just 10 actors and eight on-stage musicians—works well in the 2000+ seat Oriental Theatre. While the Broadway production was staged in the round, director Sam Gold has restaged it for proscenium houses. There are certain advantages to having the traditional "three walls" of theatre as well as the expansive stage space of these larger venues to clearly separate the action occurring at different stages of Alison's life and different places within her memory. Alternating between events in Alison's life at age 10 and 19, it tells parallel stories of the 10-year-old's first attraction to women and a realization she wasn't quite like other girls along with the 19-year-old Alison's coming out as a lesbian during her sophomore year of college.

In Gold's staging, these time shifts are never unclear as he uses the large stage wisely to keep them separated. Additionally, the upstage wall allows for a set reveal that I imagine wasn't possible in the Broadway staging at Circle in the Square. Initially, we see a brick wall at back, with various set pieces and props establishing the Bechdel home—a historic restoration of the vintage house accomplished by Bruce. In this proscenium staging, we see a detailed, hyper-realistic depiction of the elaborate home—and it gives some insight into Bruce's mind. We see the full extent of his passion for restoration—attention to detail and order, and accordingly we begin to understand why the attraction to males he found impossible to acknowledge publicly or integrate into his small-town Pennsylvania life have been even more disturbing to such an otherwise orderly man.

Gold and the producers have populated the stage with a superb cast, beginning with Broadway's Kate Shindle as the older Alison who narrates the story as she drags the events from her memory into her drawings. It's not a role that requires much emoting—Alison is trying to recreate events as objectively as she can, even acknowledging the limitations of her memory, but Shindle gives a grounded, commanding performance that nonetheless suggests the unresolved pain behind Alison's controlled façade. The present day Alison is shown as the sum of experiences at Alison's earlier stages in life, which are shown vividly in the energetic and stunning performances of Alessandra Baldacchino as "Small Alison" (who understudied the role on Broadway) and Abby Corrigan as "Medium Alison."

The tour's Bruce is Robert Petkoff, a Broadway vet well known to Chicago audiences for his work in Follies at Chicago Shakespeare. Petkoff was out at the performance I attended, but the role was more than ably handled by understudy Michael Winther. Though this was his first time performing the part, he very confidently communicated the layers and internal conflicts of the tragic Bruce and delivered the considerable vocal demands of the role with consummate skill. This musical counts on the audience being able to empathize with this misguided, flawed man, and Winther clearly accomplished that.

Chicago's Susan Moniz is a rather chilling Helen. As the wife and mother who apparently never considers ending her marriage to Bruce in the face of his increasing inability to reconcile his sexual orientation, her Helen retreats from intimacy with Bruce and their children (Alison's brothers are played charmingly by Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond). Robert Hager is appealing in multiple roles, most notably as the hunky Roy whom Bruce hires ostensibly for yard work, but ends up seducing. Hager also plays the underage Mark who lands Bruce in legal trouble as well as two other roles. Karen Eilbacher is warm and sympathetic as Alison's first girlfriend, Joan.

Tesori's score, though mostly eschewing traditional pop song structure for a freer form, is harmonically rich and melodically accessible. Closer to her score for Violet than her more traditional sounding Shrek or Thoroughly Modern Millie, it's a complex work. The eight-piece band playing John Clancy's orchestrations for strings and winds as well as electronic instruments create a fuller and more symphonic sound than one might expect from such a small instrumental ensemble. Kron's lyrics blend seamlessly with her dialogue and the use of songs or sung dialogue or monologues always seems organic and never forced.

The fact that this musical made it to Broadway, where it not only won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and four other Tonys), but ran for nearly a year and a half and recouped its investment, is a testament to the willingness of some Broadway producers, investors and audiences to take on such challenging and worthy works. It will certainly become a staple of regional and college theatres—bridging, a la Sondheim's shows, the gap between the popularity of musicals and the credentials of art that is ambitious both musically and dramatically.

Fun Home will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, through November 13, 2016. For ticket information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit http://funhomebroadway.com..


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