'Fun Home' reflects struggles with family and identity
Broadway musical opens at D.C.’s National Theatre, portraying the life of cartoonist Alison Bechdel
With cartoons, caskets, family secrets and young love, Broadway musical “Fun Home” brings a bittersweet coming-of-age – and coming out – story to the stage. After winning five Tony Awards during its Broadway run, “Fun Home” kicked off its D.C. premiere on April 20 at the National Theatre.
Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, “Fun Home” retells Bechdel’s story in an innovative way. As 43-year-old Alison (Kate Shindle) composes her memoir, two periods of her past are re-enacted on stage. While adult Alison narrates and observes, “Small” Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) helps with the family funeral home business while seeking her father’s affection, and “Medium” Alison (Abby Corrigan) comes into her political and sexual identities as a freshman at Oberlin College.
While each actor effectively portrays the different stages in Alison’s life, Shindle and Corrigan stand out in their performances. Corrigan skillfully conveys Medium Alison’s awkwardness and growing confidence, as she struggles to find her place in college and share with her parents her realization that she is a lesbian. In “Changing My Major,” Corrigan embodies Medium Alison’s feelings of excitement and eagerness after her first time having sex with a girl, providing an endearing portrayal of first love.
Through her narration and songs like “Maps,” Shindle gives life to the older Alison’s mix of self-deprecation. Her performance in “Telephone Wire” is one of the more unforgettable moments of the show, as she powerfully expresses the spectrum of emotions that Alison experiences while trying to relate to her father.
Petkoff also provides a moving performance in his role as Alison’s father, a closeted gay man who committed suicide during her first semester of college. Bruce Bechdel balances his work as a high school English teacher and funeral home director with his hobby of restoring homes, all the while carrying on a string of affairs with men. In songs like “Helen’s Etude” and “Edges of the World,” Petkoff masterfully conveys Bruce’s inner turmoil and deep unhappiness with life.
Susan Moniz matches Petkoff in vocal strength and emotional depth in her role as Alison’s mother, Helen Bechdel. Despite having a small role throughout most of the musical, Helen takes centerstage in “Days and Days,” a powerful confession of her troubled and unfulfilling marriage to a man who resents her.
Despite tackling heavy themes, “Fun Home” had the audience laughing through the night. In “Come to the Fun Home,” Small Alison and her brothers create a commercial for the Bechdel Funeral Home, dancing in caskets and promoting the “body prep that can’t be beat.” Throughout the musical, adult Alison’s quips and wry comments also provide some much-needed comedic relief.
Playwright Lisa Kron’s lyrics, combined with composer Jeanine Tesori’s score, give the musical a tone that is never heavy-handed or overly sentimental. Instead, “Fun Home” achieves a candid and deeply humanizing portrayal of the trials and tribulations faced by one family. With strong performances and a poignant story, “Fun Home” moves its audience to tears, laughter, and reflection on life.