Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Fun Home
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, and The Norwegians


Robert Petkoff and Alessandra Baldacchino
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home is a wonderful new musical having its first run in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre. Even with beautiful music, an achingly moving book, bracing relevancy to modern lives, and two of the most complicated, fully drawn characters to be found in recent musical theater, Fun Home seems an unlikely show to have been a Broadway hit and 2015's Best Musical Tony Award winner. It is based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic novel about her childhood and adolescence, culminating in two life-altering events that occurred within months of each other: her own coming out as a lesbian during her freshman year in college, and her father's, who lived as a closeted gay man in their small Pennsylvania town, suicide. Not typical song and dance fare.

Nonetheless, Fun Home not only delivers powerful emotions with complete authenticity, it is also highly entertaining. But don't be fooled by the title. The "fun" in the title is short for "funeral." Alison's dad Bruce ran Bechdel Funeral Home, a family business passed down from his grandparents, and Alison and her two brothers nonchalantly call it the Fun Home. One thing the musical does is normalize this unique context for growing up. The kids perform a pretend TV commercial about their "Fun Home," with a bouncy Jackson 5-like sound (this was the mid 1970s) and they hide among the funereal furnishings. Aspects of life that, from a distance, may seem to be grim and forbidding can become the everyday experience of life, not inherently good or bad, just what is.

Besides being the funeral home director, Bruce also teaches English at the local high school and is consumed with the restoration of the family's historic home, along with collecting antique furnishings that reflect its period. Being so busy does not keep him from finding time for clandestine affairs with numerous men, though it does curtail his availability to his wife Helen and their three children. Both Bruce and Alison are etched as complex individuals. Bruce suffers from both vanity and self-loathing that fosters rage against Helen and unattainable expectations for Alison to be a perfect daughter.

To fully depict Alison's journey from childhood to adult, the Tony Award winning book by playwright Lisa Kron gives us three Alisons: Small Alison, Medium Alison and Alison. Small Alison is Bechdel as a child, chafing against the social norm of being lady-like while trying to live up to her father's demands. She begins to know who she really is in a fantastic scene in a diner, where she observes a delivery woman who is short-haired, dresses like a man, and most notably has a large ring of keys dangling from her waist. In "Ring of Keys," Small Alison celebrates this thrilling moment of self-discovery, one of the highlights of the show. Medium Alison is Bechdel as a college student, stepping out of the shadows of small town life and her father, and fully discovering the joy and power of her identity. At the moment of recognition, after the exhilaration of her first sexual experience with an Oberlin College classmate named Joan, she rapturously sings "Changing My Major," a song that perfectly captures her unimagined happiness—another highlight of the show.

Alison, as a 43-year-old woman, is the grown person who is documenting her own story, constantly on stage as she draws herself, her family, and the artifacts of their life, with running commentary that reveals how each memory of her younger versions is seen from the perch of middle age. She is in essence creating the book "Fun Home," which in turn becomes the musical we are watching. She only steps into the past at one moment, the chilling "Telephone Wire," as, after Medium Alison has come out to her parents and her father's secret life been revealed to her, she struggles desperately to make a connection of their revealed truths. This too, a highlight.

In fact, composer Jeanine Tesori has created quite a few musical highlights. Tesori has teeter-tottered between commercial musical fare, with Shrek, the Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and more rarefied work in the motif of chamber musicals, such as Caroline, or Change and Violet, excelling at both. Fun Home's Tony Award winning score is more akin to the latter, yet with several compositions that stand out as show songs—those mentioned above along with the commercial "Come to the Fun Home" and a song in which Small Alison tries to blot out her parents' vitriol, imagining a bliss protected by a "Raincoat of Love" in a style straight out of "The Partridge Family" (still in the mid 1970s). Those last two mentioned are the primary opportunities for the cast to break out in dance, with Danny Medford's lively choreography affectionately parodying their genres.

Director Sam Gold manages Alison's travels back and forth in her memories, between her small and medium self, and her present reality, with a sharp focus that makes this device work beautifully. Though we know from the start what the outcome will be for both Alison and Bruce, Gold's direction and Kron's book make every step of their journey a surprise. David Zinn's set design might be considered a character in its own right. Several clusters of furniture depict the fragmentation of the Bechdels home, littered with antique furniture and period adornments. Only when Medium Alison brings Joan home with her for a visit from college, after coming out, is the family home fully put together.

All of the performances are superb. Kate Shindle as Alison perfectly captures the struggles of an artist to make a coherent whole of the images, objects and conversations adrift in her memory. She makes the process of reconstructing her life tangible and touching. Robert Petkoff gives a chilling performance as Bruce, held captive by self-deception, unable to accept the hurt he inflicts on his family in the process. When he sees himself exposed, he dives into a futile project of home rehabilitation, as hopeless as the odds of self-rehabilitation, until he implodes in "Edges of the World." It is hard to like Bruce, but Petkoff helps us feel the pain he suffers. He also has a gorgeous voice, and the good looks to justify his vanity.

Abby Corrigan is delightful as Medium Alison, perfectly capturing the uncertainty of being on the brink of adulthood, and having the freedom to make real choices. Her exuberance upon the blossoming of her sexuality is matched by her anger toward her parents for their stony response to her coming out. Alessandra Baldacchino provides an engaging vitality as Small Alison, showing us her ability to be outspoken about her preferences and values, along with the hurt she suffers each time her father lashes out at her for not conforming to his image of her.

Susan Moniz as Helen seems to shrink into the background of the Bechdel household, but comes blazingly into her own with her powerful performance of "Days and Days," winning both our sympathy and admiration. Karen Eilbacher provides both seductiveness and sincerity as Alison's first love, while Robert Hager has the right physical qualities to depict two of the objects of Bruce's desire.

It should be noted that while the two main characters in Fun Home both deal with their sexual identity, the show is not a "gay" play. It deals broadly with the individual's search for truth, and for the ways families can support or undermine that search. Now that Fun Home has made it to the Twin Cities, let's hope it soon returns in productions that can stay with us for longer than a week. Though a Tony winner, this show is not nearly the household title of, say, a Hamilton or Wicked, yet it's a show that is easy to love. Its final scenes are so touching, so full of hope and determination, you will leave the theater feeling the beauty and power within every person, within ourselves. That's a lot more to take home than just a song and dance.

Fun Home runs through December 18, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $134.00. For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit funhomebroadway.com.

Book and Lyrics: Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel; Music: Jeanine Tesori; Director: Sam Gold; Set and Costume Design: David Zinn; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Sound Design: Kai Harada; Hair and Wig Design: Rick Caroto; Choreography: Danny Medford; Orchestrations: John Clancy; Music Director: Micah Young; Music Coordinator: Antoine Silverman; Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA and Jillian Cimini, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Shawn Pennington; Stage Manager: Geoff Maus.

Cast: Alessandra Baldacchino (Small Alison), Abby Corrigan (Medium Alison), Karen Eilbacher (Joan), Carly Gold (Small Alison, at certain performances), Robert Hager (Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby Jeremy), Lennon Nate Hammond (John), Susan Moniz (Helen), Robert Petkoff (Bruce), Pierson Salvador (Christian), Kate Shindle (Alison).


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