The 2015 Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home visits Philadelphia this week as part of its first national tour, launched last October. Composer Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics writer Lisa Kron made history by becoming the first female writing team awarded the Best Score Tony Award; Kron also won for Best Book, as did Sam Gold for his direction.
Fun Home's subject matter — cartoonist Alison Bechdel's childhood and relationship with her father, chronicled in her bestselling graphic novel — continues a trend of successful new musicals with nontraditional subjects and characters, like the last two Tony winners for Best New Musical, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. If serious subjects like early American history, teen suicide, and discovering and accepting one's sexuality can be explored creatively through song to popular acclaim, then wider understanding is possible — which might be more important in the long run than traditional boffo spectacles like this year's Hello Dolly. Not that we can't enjoy both, of course.
The fun in funeral
Three Alison Bechdels share stage time, often simultaneously. Adult Alison (Kate Shindle) narrates and comments in the present. "I don't trust memory," she tells us — ironically, given that Fun Home is a memory play. Carly Gold plays Small Alison, who, with brothers Christian (Luke Barbato Smith) and John (Henry Boshart), reveals simple joys mixed with mounting confusion in their small-town home. Medium Allison (Abby Corrigan) is the teenager, coping with her sexual identity in college — "Please, God," she prays, "don't let me be a lesbian" — and discovering the adult truths hidden in plain sight at home.
One might think Alison's father Bruce (Robert Petkoff) would be her advocate, given that he struggles with his own homosexuality, which threatens to ruin both his marriage to Helen (Susan Moniz) and his high-school teaching career. They also run the family's funeral home — shortened to "Fun Home" within the family — and he passionately pursues his hobby of historical home renovation. He's a brilliantly wrought, complex character, simultaneously a loving father and a self-tortured, brutal monster.
Alison's budding sexuality juxtaposes Bruce's misery with comical insight. Young Alison sings one of the 100-minute show's best songs, "Ring of Keys," which beautifully reveals a defining childhood moment of attraction. When Medium Alison makes a connection with fellow college student Joan (Kally Duling), she celebrates in the triumphantly silly "Changing My Major." Her healthy realization contrasts tragically with her parents' complicated reactions to her coming out.
Small details, big room
While I may be prejudiced, preferring smaller spaces to cavernous Broadway-scale theaters like the Forrest, Fun Home feels too intimate for the room. I wanted to appreciate the delicate ways Tesori's music defines stillness, Kron's clever conversational lyrics, and the Alison trio's subtle harmonies, but the space and amplification — as well as the theater staff's raucous lobby behavior through the show, a rude distraction anywhere but unthinkable in a professional theater — blunted the efforts of a fine cast and music director Micah Young's seven-person orchestra.
Broadway is theater's measure of success, so performing Fun Home in big touring houses is appropriate and inevitable. Nevertheless, I look forward to regional theaters gaining the rights, so that a company like the Arden or 11th Hour can close that gap and reveal Fun Home's intricate details and subtle emotional truths at the right scale.