“Fun Home,” the 2015 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, kicks off a limited Broadway in Chicago engagement this week, and in so many ways, it smashes the musical theater mold. The morning after, I’m still trying to synthesize it all. As Martha Stewart is famous for saying, “That’s a good thing.”
For starters, the work is an adaptation of Allison Bechdel’s 2006 best-selling graphic memoir of the same name. Visuals are therefore a huge feature of the print work as well as the complex stage iteration. Dialogue and song are just two-thirds of the equation more profoundly than the typical Broadway production. Bechdel’s drawings are brought to life in a very conscious way that invites the audience to assume the role of voyeur. It’s an intimate experience that immediately creates a bond between the artist, source material and audience.
We’ve all consumed variations of the tried and true coming of age story, but in this regard, “Fun Home” is also quite different. We very much take the journey with Bechdel, as she views herself and her small-town Pennsylvania family through the eyes of memory at three different life stages: as an idealistic child who worships her creative, but distant father, a college freshman dealing with all the complexity of coming out of the closet in the late 20th Century, and a 40-something adult woman with a hindsight perspective.
Except it’s very clear that mature Allison still wrestles with demons and questions from the past. She presents no omniscient authority. Everything is up for examination and discussion. Considering the work’s genesis as a graphic novel and its tangled subject matter, it would have been easy for the musical component of the stage version to feel forced or arbitrarily shoe-horned. However like Bechdel’s haunting, beautiful drawings, Jeanine Tesori’s score is both gentle and thoughtful, while packing serious emotional punches. And catchy too.
A personal favorite is “Come to the Fun Home,” a peppy, dancey number performed by the young Bechdel children, Rachel and her two little brothers, John and Christian. The song is part of a make-believe commercial devised by the kids to promote the funeral parlor their father operates when he’s not teaching high school English, restoring antique homes and grappling with his own closeted homosexuality. Exuberant and lively, it still cannot escape the observer that the number occurs in a place of constant, revolving death. Alessandra Baldacchino, who plays the part of young Allison, is a real talent. Beautiful singing voice, genuine dramatic gifts.
In fact without exception, the cast of Broadway in Chicago’s “Fun Home” is well chosen. With quality dialogue and song handed to them, the performers embrace tragicomedy without stereotype. My companion for the evening was particularly impressed with Kate Shindle, who portrays adult Allison with the deft complexity required of serving as the dramatic fulcrum on top of which the narrative finds balance.
When the work won the Tony for Best Score in 2015, another mold was broken. Book author Lisa Kron and Tesori made history as the first female writing team to take home the trophy. That’s fitting because while “Fun Home” contains male characters — Allison’s father Bruce (the terrific Robert Petkoff) and his revolving cast of furtive lovers — this is a decidedly female story. Bechdel matriarch Helen (the diminutive but powerful Susan Moniz) is a complex portrait of devotion and conflict, a gifted artist in her own right who grapples with a lifetime of betrayal and secrets. And Allison’s first lover Joan (Karen Eilbacher) is the confident, empowering ideal of an LGBTQ community gaining 20th Century strength.
The musical, with raw, poetic language, sexual situations and honest engagement with death, is decidedly adult. Even then it may present a challenge to sensitive audiences. “My Fair Lady” this is not. As I said, multiple Broadway stereotypes are tested and shattered. But wow. It’s worth it. Fresh, haunting and full of sensory experience, “Fun Home” is one to see.
“Fun Home” runs through Nov. 13 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.