Chicago Theatre Review
A Groundbreaking Winner
Fun Home – Broadway in Chicago
Unlike most musicals, this five-time Tony Award winner, including 2015’s accolade for Best Musical, is a very serious, heartbreaking show filled with pain and anguish. It bears a resemblance to “Next to Normal,” another dramatic musical of a few years earlier that tackled controversial themes about family relationships. What makes this show especially noteworthy is that, first, it’s adapted from a graphic novel memoir, and, second, it features the first lesbian protagonist as its main character. It’s a groundbreaking, award-winning work of art that’s certain to leave audiences emotionally spent.
In this musical adaptation of graphic artist Alison Bechdel’s life, including the discovery of her own sexuality and her strict father’s closeted homosexuality, Lisa Kron has crafted a one-act script and the lyrics for the lovely score composed by Jeanine Tesori (“Shrek,” “Caroline or Change,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”). The music is so closely integrated into the story that the program doesn’t even provide a listing of songs. However, certain numbers stand out, including the infectious and funny “Come to the Fun Home,” sung by young Alison and her two brothers; the angst-ridden “Days and Days,” sung with heartbreaking emotion by Helen, Alison’s mother; “Changing My Major,” in which a college-aged Alison musically expresses her unleashed feelings about finding love with another young woman; and Young Alison’s first tender discovery that she’s attracted to other women, a female UPS delivery worker, who carries “A Ring of Keys.”
The plot of this beautiful show should be experienced, rather than read about, but audiences attending this show need to know that it isn’t another “Oklahoma” or “Guys and Dolls.” The story begins with Alison at age 43, sitting at her artist’s desk where she creates her graphic novels, pondering the events from her childhood and youth that shaped who she is and what has brought her to this point in life. Juxtaposed throughout the hour and forty-minute musical we meet both Small Alison and Medium Alison, who share meaningful moments from their tumultuous life with adult Alison. In addition, we get to know her younger brothers John and Christian, her mother Helen and her father Bruce. There’s also Joan, Medium Alison’s first lesbian lover from her years at Oberlin College, and a congregation of young men from her father’s life, all played by the same actor.
The plot jumps back in forth in time and place, anchored by Alison’s years spent in the family’s museum-like Victorian Pennsylvania home, that’s also the locale of the funeral home Bruce runs, or the “fun home.” David Zinn has done a fine job adapting his Tony-nominated scenic design, for the Circle in the Square’s in-the-round Broadway production, into an ever-changing proscenium setting. Tony Award-winning Director Sam Gold has nicely restaged his original production to accommodate the traditional theatre spaces that this tour will play, and Ben Stanton has again lit this show with grace and focus.
This moving production is helmed by Kate Shindle’s excellent portrayal of adult Alison. Theatergoers will empathize with the journey her young character makes through confusion, self-discovery, pain, and, finally, acceptance. Looking very much like the real Alison Bechdel, Ms. Shindle, a graduate of Northwestern University and a former Miss Illinois and Miss America, is immaculate and luminous in the leading role. She navigates throughout the years and incidents of her character’s 43 years with honest passion and dignity.
She’s matched by a powerful performance by Abby Corrigan as Middle Alison, a character whose sexual confusion is meshed with a struggle to understand her strict father’s irrational behavior. Ms. Corrigan displays a powerful singing voice that supports her brilliant dramatic performance and makes her strong contribution to this story equally as memorable. And young Alessandra Baldacchino, who played Small Alison on Broadway, is just as comfortable and competent in this National Touring production. She alternates with Carly Gold, in certain performances, portraying this heartbreaking little girl who doesn’t understand who she is and why she feels the way she does about her developing psyche. Most of all, Small Alison wishes for more contact with her dad, not realizing at the time how alike they really are and how her father’s demands for her to be more feminine are an extension of his own frustrations.
As Bruce, Broadway actor Robert Petkoff is sensational. Known primarily for his work in Shakespearean works, Mr. Petkoff’s first musical role was actually at Chicago Shakespeare in the title role of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” Once again this terrific actor floats his mellifluous voice over a Chicago audience, this time translating Tesori’s lovely score, bringing all the agony and frustration a husband and father must feel when his genes unexpectedly throw him a curveball. Petkoff’s tragic portrayal is brimming with petulance, pain and sheer panic. Acclaimed Chicago actress Susan Moniz, whose resume boasts a broad variety of roles, was most recently enjoyed here in the Marriott’s world premiere of “October Sky.” As Helen, Alison’s discouraged and disheartened mother, Ms. Moniz is excellent and quite touching.
Karen Eilbacher debuts in this, her first National Tour, as Joan, Alison’s first lover. She brings a gentleness and genuineness to this role that’s lovely and belies her punk hairstyle and her masucline attire, designed by Rick Caroto and David Zinn. Fine performances are also turned in by Robert Hager, as Roy/Mark/Pete and Bobby, as well as Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador as Alison’s brothers John and Christian.
This musical broke a lot of new ground when it first opened in 2013 at the Public Theater Off-Broadway, finally bursting onto the Broadway scene two years later. It has reached the status of a cult musical with its many fans, particularly among the LGBTQ community. But the show is noteworthy as an honest, heartbreaking ode to everyone who’s felt different and didn’t understand why until s/he reached puberty, or beyond. It really speaks to any theatergoer whose family has been tormented or
torn apart by secrets and lies. But, most of all, this musical is about being human and all the complicated baggage that comes with the voyage from youth to adulthood. Perhaps not for every taste, this award-winning musical is one show audiences will never forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 2-13 by Broadway in Chicago at the Ford Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all BIC box offices, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.