Fun Home is a memory play – more precisely, a memory musical. Based on Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, the show is also about the creative process, parent-child relationships, the grip the past exerts on the present, and tensions between gay liberation and the culture of the closet.
Part of the Kimmel Center's Broadway Philadelphia series, Fun Home arrives at the Forrest Theatre trailing clouds of glory – five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical, and awards for its taut, clever book (by Lisa Kron) and score (lyrics by Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori). Sam Gold, who won a Tony for his direction, has staged this national touring production with polish, delicacy, and an exemplary cast.
Still, don't expect crowd-pleasing fun, hummable tunes, or strong uplift. This is an achingly personal show – dark and sometimes subtle, with redemptive moments of humor and transcendence.
The one-act piece's main gimmick is the presence of three different versions of the lead character: Alison (Kate Shindle), the cartoonist/narrator, at 43; college-age "Medium Alison" (Abby Corrigan); and preadolescent "Small Alison" (Carly Gold, with Jadyn Schwarz at some performances). All three actresses are marvelous, though starkly different.
Shindle, who sings beautifully and commands the stage, anchors Fun Home. Her Alison boasts a mordant wit and a determination to face the past honestly, even if her memories pain or perplex her. At first tentative about her sexual identity, Corrigan's Alison gets one of the musical's most endearing numbers, an exultant ode to her new love, Joan (the terrific Kally Duling). And Gold, more feminine than butch, has cuteness and charm to spare.
The memoir and musical represent Bechdel's attempt to come to terms with the suicide of her gay father, Bruce (a daringly unsympathetic Robert Petkoff), which occurred just as she was enjoying her first lesbian romance. Alison's grief, and her questioning, frame the show. She wonders: Did her coming out spark in him regrets too powerful to overcome? Could she have said or done anything to have prevented the tragedy? Does his fate in any way foreshadow her own?
Bruce is the product of an era when gay men sometimes married unsuspecting women and conducted clandestine affairs. A passionate English teacher and a demon for home restoration, he is also a funeral director by inheritance. The show's title alludes both to the family's jaunty abbreviation for funeral home and, ironically, to its increasingly evident dysfunction.
The perfectionist Bruce has a bond with Alison (her two brothers cavort amusingly, but aren't well-defined) — otherwise, there would be no story to tell. But he's a tormented soul whose amorous longings assume a predatory cast. His lovers (played by Robert Hager) are younger, less educated, and, in some cases, underage. He is emotionally abusive to his long-suffering wife, Helen (Susan Moniz), and, intermittently, to Alison. It's not clear why the marriage endures, though Helen, who knows early on of Bruce's affairs, at least gets a song to lament her wasted years.
David Zinn's scenic design moves from groupings of furniture suggesting the narrative's three time frames (with the small orchestra onstage) to a fully realized representation of the family's museumlike home. It's as though, through the rigors of the creative process, Alison's memories have sharpened and grown more powerfully detailed.