Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical uses an interesting concept to musicalize the graphic novel. It is a thoughtful and intriguing memory play which begins with the 43-year-old Alison looking back at her life, specifically at two major events that happened within a short period of time. Alison is looking for the truth from her past and is using these moments to draw them as cartoon panels and find a way to form the illustrations into what would eventually become the graphic novel the musical is based on. We also learn in the opening song that not only is Alison gay, but so was her father and that he killed himself. That sets up a mystery of sorts as Alison tries to determine if her coming out, which happened shortly before her father's suicide, had anything to do with her father's death.
As Alison tries to piece together her memories, we see her at two impressionable ages. First there is 10-year-old Alison, who experiences many sweet and confusing times with her very demanding, perfection-focused father while struggling against the social norm of what a girl should be: Alison much prefers to wear boy's clothes and constantly takes out the barrettes in her hair that her father continually makes her put back. We also witness the first moment she realizes she isn't like other girls her age, when she sees a butch delivery woman and notices that she and this woman have a lot in common. Second, we see college freshman Alison's coming out as a lesbian and how that is the result of an awakening she has that happens when she is away from her father Bruce, her small town, and the family funeral parlor that Bruce runs out of their home (the title of the piece comes from the abbreviated name the family gives to their home business), and how that becomes a revelatory time of self-discovery.
Lisa Kron's book is unflinchingly honest yet filled with plenty of humorous moments amongst the many serious events in Alison's life. Kron expertly weaves together the three ages that Alison is portrayed in the show with finely etched characters that are drawn with superb details. While two of the main characters are gay and are struggling with their sexuality in different ways, this isn't a "gay play" that only focuses on gay people and their issues, but a show that expertly portrays how one member of a dysfunctional family struggles to reveal how the events of the past formed their future. In that sense, it is a highly accessible work about coming of age while also coming to grips with the events and truths of your painful past. I only wish the ending had more of an emotional payoff, though that may have more to do with the tour playing in a theatre that seats a few thousand people where on Broadway it played in the intimate Circle in the Square Theatre which seats under 800 in an in-the-round configuration. Perhaps the distance from the audience to the actors creates more of a disconnect to their plight? Kron's lyrics are just as good as her book in how they take images and common items such as stop lights, rings of keys, and telephone wires to form emotional meaning and an urgency in the words that play off of Jeanine Tesori's soaring music compositions. Director Sam Gold beautifully blends together the three times periods of the piece and ensures his cast deliver nuanced and authentic portrayals.
The cast for the touring production is excellent. Kate Shindle plays the older Alison with a direct approach. As an observer, on stage for almost the entire piece, Shindle's firm but heartfelt and funny narration easily provides meaningful insight as well as moments of discovery. There is only one time when Shindle comes in direct contact with the rest of the cast, the chilling "Telephone Wire" in which the older Alison steps back into time for the last conversation she had with her father, desperately trying to find some way to connect with him. Anyone who has ever had something important but difficult to say to someone they love will immediately identify with Kron's concise, descriptive lyrics and Shindle's emotionally rich performance of this beautiful song.
Abby Corrigan is Medium Alison and she beautifully captures the excitement that comes from her discovery of her sexuality with her solo "Changing My Major," which is a comical and exuberant highlight. But we also completely understand the frustration and anger she feels when her parents' response to her revelation isn't what she thinks it should be. As Small Alison, Carly Gold is a knock out and utterly delightful. With well thought out line delivery, facial expressions and inflections, we see the hurt she feels every time her father yells at her when he doesn't think she is living up to the perfect image he has of her, and also the excitement she exhibits at many times. Her performance of "Ring of Keys," the song she sings when she sees the delivery woman in a diner and knows that they are somehow connected, is a soaring, sensational and thrilling moment of beauty and self-discovery.
Alison's father Bruce is portrayed as an intelligent but highly confused man. He has moments of self-loathing as well as ones filled with beauty and joy, and Robert Petkoff walks the fine line between the different sides of this troubled man. Bruce is a highly unlikable character, yet Petkoff makes you see the pain and suffering he has experienced as a closeted gay man living in the 1970s who repressed and tried to hide his feelings, so you understand, somewhat, the demons he was dealing with and why he treated his wife and family so horribly at times. Though she is in the background for most of the show, Susan Moniz delivers a finely etched performance as Helen, Bruce's wife and Alison's mother. Her "Days and Days" solo, which details Helen's realization of how she disappeared into the shadow of her husband and how her family duties engulfed her, is stunning.
From the end of the opening song, many of the moments of self-discovery the characters will have and the tragic ending that Bruce will encounter are already known. However, Gold's succinct direction, Kron's beautifully written book, Tesori's soaring score, and a superb cast make the journey of Fun Home one of discovery and full of hope and understanding for both the audience and the older Alison as she tries to learn the truths that formed the events of her past.
Fun Home runs through September 10th, 2017, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.funhomebroadway.com/tour.
Based on Alison Bechdel's graphic-novel