The best open house this holiday season runs this week, but it’s not about nostalgia or sentiment.
Fun Home tells a true story of the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s upbringing in a lovingly dysfunctional family. The graphic novel of the same name she created is densely packed with congruent thought and imagery, at once meticulous and joyously messy. Competing themes include the jarring ways in which all families operate, with the capacity for deeply moving affection and random cruelties by the same people; the nadir of internalized shame and the end result, which just happens to parallel the family-run funeral home business.
It’s only natural that something so fresh and boundary breaking would be made into a musical. The question is, would that form help or hurt an already rich artistic product in the book? Local audiences also no doubt hope the touring show will reflect the glory of the Broadway production.
The answer here is a qualified yes and yes. This story exudes originality, portraying complicated topics with childlike simplicity — well, also adolescent anger and an adult’s hard-earned insight — only now with a musical dimension. Qualified, because the form that packages that added dimension smacks of the mechanization of musical theater. In fairness, those features only stand out because Bechdel by her own account didn’t draw her memoir with any formula in mind, a stubbornly independent trait that factors strongly into the character.
Nonetheless, these manipulations work often enough to create a stirring, thought-provoking piece of work. Alison’s father, Bruce (played with versatility and care by Robert Petkoff) is an English teacher and part-time funeral home operator who lives a double life under everyone’s nose. His three children absorb all that they can see, while Helen (in a finely drawn portrait of quiet suffering by Susan Moniz) sees her husband’s serial philandering with men all too clearly.
Alison is played by three actors. Small Alison (a terrific Carly Gold) receives love and genuine nurturing from the same man who verbally abuses and disrespects his wife. Medium Alison (my favorite of the three, the golden-voiced Abby Corrigan) comes to terms with her sexual identity without even suspecting her father’s, cemented in a thoroughly wholesome scene with Victoria Janicki, who as Joan ushers her into her first sexual experience with a woman. The resulting song, Changing My Major, is a great example of everything that works about this musical.
Examples of what falls short are a pedestrian suicide-by-truck that chickens out on the impact. There is a difference between sensitivity and timidity, and this is the latter. Then there’s the unresolved problem of how to stage the ever-present adult Alison, a future-self-looking-back played by Kate Shindle, who seems more to be imitating Bechdel than acting the role. Nonetheless, she nails a pivotal song (Telephone Wires) and does as best as anyone can at remaining unobtrusive on stage amidst a swirl of relevant action.
Compared with the soaring beauty of so much of what unfolds, such quibbles don’t really amount to much. Fun Home is terrific. Go see it.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.
Runs through Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $31 and up. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.