Thursday, November 10, 2016

Art Trumps Anguish: Excellent 'Fun Home' Illustrates How Bold Theater Can Reflect, Elevate and Supersede Reality -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Fun Home
a recent musical on its first National Tour
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru November 13

The other day I was telling a friend about Fun Home, before having seen it but generally familiar through the cast recording and having read a good deal about the show.

I relayed that it is an autobiographical musical centering around a lesbian cartoonist named Allison Bechdel, who had written a highly-acclaimed graphic memoir on which the musical is based.

Now in her mid-50s but a decade younger when the Fun Home book was published, Bechdel chronicled life growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, with her mom, two brothers and father, a high school English teacher who also ran the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home (i.e. "fun home").

As revealed in the first few minutes of the Fun Home musical--which is narrated by a fully grown Allison (well-played in Chicago by Kate Shindle) and enacted by Small Allison (around age 10, terrifically embodied by Alessandra Baldacchino) and Medium Allison (a college freshman, the excellent Abby Corrigan)--Allison's father Bruce maintained gay relationships and committed suicide soon after she became aware of this, and her own sexuality, shortly after entering Oberlin College.

In telling my friend about Fun Home, which I would see and greatly enjoy on Wednesday night, she noted that it seemed like an odd subject for a musical.

And within the still largely apt parlance of a musical containing "show tunes," chorus lines, choreography, etc., I fully understand the comment and incredulity.

But with occasional exceptions going back much further, over the past decade the boundaries of musical theater have considerably widened, whether in bringing new sounds into the idiom--such as in Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Hamilton--and in the rise of musicals that are largely dramatic and about weighty subjects, notably Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Fun Home, which won the 2015 Tony Award for the Best New Musical.

Especially in neither being based on popular movies nor featuring well-known pop songs, these dramatic musicals offer exciting deviations from more traditional musicals, whether new or old.

I love any musical worth its salt, but as with Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Hamilton, I imagine Fun Home should greatly appeal to "serious theater lovers" perhaps generally adverse to more typical song & dance musicals.

With a score by Jeanine Tesori, who also wrote the music for Thoroughly Magnificent Millie, Caroline, or Change, Shrek: The Musicals and others--complemented by lyrics by Lisa Kron, who also penned the show's book--Fun Home certainly has several fine songs.

But with deference to some outstanding performances on tunes pivotal to the artistic enterprise, the greatness of Fun Home is more so found in its storytelling, structure and poignancy.

Perhaps because of this, and even some slow pacing within a one-act musical just 100 minutes long, I can't say I loved Fun Home quite as much as Hamilton, or even another non-traditional musical I recently saw called Come From Away, in which more of the songs were overtly infectious.

I also imagine the show might've been much better appreciated up close at Broadway's intimate Circle in the Square than from the balcony of Chicago's cavernous Oriental Theater.  

But whether it's best described as a dramatic musical, an autobiographical play with somber overtones set to music or simply a unique work of theater, Fun Home is, at the very least, terrific.

It's almost impossible not to be moved by Bechdel's recollections of childhood beratings by of her father, her realization and embrace of her own gayness, learning about her dad's hidden life, the coping of her mother (empathetically played by Chicagoland stage veteran, Susan Moniz), her father's death and her own life ever since.

But as adapted by Kron, the show also has considerable humor, and from the Jackson 5ish romp of "Come to the Fun Home," as Small Allison and her brothers create a mock commercial for the funeral home, to songs of sexual awakening ("Changing My Major," "Ring of Keys") to touching introspective tunes by both the mother (Moniz shines on "Days and Days") and father ("Edges of the World" nicely handled by Robert Petkoff as Bruce Bechdel), the music hits many high notes.

While the concept of multiple actresses playing the same character, sometimes onstage simultaneously, might sound like it could get confusing, under the Tony-winning direction of Sam Gold, it never is, and works rather uniquely and effectively.

And while five members of the Broadway cast were nominated for Tony Awards--including all 3 "Allison" actresses--in terms of both acting and singing those in the first national tour cast seemed as good as one could hope.

Shindle, a Northwestern grad, former Miss America and Broadway vet, is really good as the real-time Allison, and Petkoff--who I've seen in Sondheim musicals at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater--brings nice nuance to the difficult role of her cultured, conflicted, harsh, technically even criminal (he has some dalliances with teenage boys) but clearly beloved father.

As the two younger Allisons, Corrigan and Baldacchino are also rather superb.

Although Fun Home didn't quite blow me away to @@@@@ fulfillment--and unless one prefers darker, dramatic, non-traditional musicals, I wouldn't insist you go see it before the Chicago run ends on Sunday--I look forward to seeing it sometime down the road in a smaller setting.

And on the night after Donald Trump won the presidency, it served as a reiteration that art will be our salvation, that beauty can eclipse darkness and that even a rather solemn musical can be uplifting and inspiring at times when real life isn't.

As Shindle said post-show in soliciting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS donations, "We are not going back. We will not return to the world that killed Bruce Bechdel."

Daring yet open-hearted musicals like Fun Home will help see to that. 

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