By Erin Fleming
Fun Home has opened in Chicago for a limited run and is the perfect pre-holiday season diversion as theatergoers prepare themselves for Thanksgiving and all those election year conversations around the dinner table. Because watching Fun Home is an exercise in forgiveness and empathy, as much as it is a reminder that everyone looks at their family occasionally and asks, “WTF?”
The unconventionally hilarious and often heartbreaking autobiographical musical by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel is based on her best-selling graphic-novel of the same name, and was the sensation of Broadway in 2015, winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Direction. Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book/lyrics) also became the first female team to win Best Score. Fitting, since Bechdel is the Bechdel of “the Bechdel Test,” a kind of feminist critical pap smear applied to works of fiction to see whether they contain at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. (Apply the test to your favorite film or show; it’s enlightening.)
Fun Home takes its title from the Bechdels’ grim nickname for their funeral home business, and focuses on Alison at 43, trying to piece together and make sense of the many mysteries and secrets of her childhood by sketching them into scenes. The story jumps back and forth through Bechdel’s life, growing up in a small Pennsylvania town where her father’s struggle with his own closeted homosexuality manifested itself in odd, OCD-driven demands of perfection from his wife and children.
A few months after Alison comes out, her father dies by suicide, leaving her a tragic legacy to interpret and unravel. As Alison attempts to capture the past in drawings, she chooses important moments to hold up to the light and re-examine through older, not-yet-wiser eyes. Here, 9-year-old Alison argues with her father about having to wear a dress. Next, Medium Alison, at 19 years old, hesitates in front of the door of the Gay Student Union, unsure whether to go in. Later, back in the early 70s, Alison and her brothers (Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador, both adorable) act out a musical commercial for the funeral home, dancing in and out of coffins with Jackson Five-type choreography. Present day Alison remains on stage, sketching and commenting and trying to put it all into context for herself, and by extension, the audience.
As Alison, the wonderful Kate Shindle ensures that Bechdel’s wry, self-deprecating humor is an essential and loyal companion throughout. Shindle is especially funny dying from embarrassment as she watches Medium Alison’s clumsy college sexapades, expertly portrayed by the equally comic Abby Corrigan. Alessandra Baldacchino is phenomenal as Small Alison, belting out” Ring of Keys.” It’s one of the show’s most culturally groundbreaking songs, depicting the epiphany of a young lesbian girl recognizing something—she’s not sure quite what yet—in an older “old school butch” delivery woman who happens to come into the same diner:
Someone just came in the door.
Like no one I ever saw before.
Your swagger and your bearing
and the just right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.
And your keys oh
Your ring of keys.
I thought it was s’pposed to be wrong
But you seem okay with being strong
It’s probably conceited to say,
But I think we’re alike in a certain way
Another great highlight is the supportive and tender relationship between Medium Alison and Joan, her first girlfriend. As Joan, Karen Eilbacher is everything everyone ever wanted in their first lover, gay or straight: she’s low-key, cooly confident, knows you better than you know yourself, and hawt. She is deserving of all the accolades in Alison’s post-coital ode to young romance, “I’m Changing My Major to Joan.”
Early on, Small Alison and her father Bruce (Robert Petkoff), who was an amateur historical restorer of houses, look through a box of “crap,” found in a basement, trying to determine if there’s anything of value. An old linen sheet, a tarnished silver teapot—which of these things are worthy of further attention and which should be discarded as junk? This is how Alison approaches the mental scrapbook of her family’s history—she picks up each scene, looking it over for the craftsman mark, for the painter’s signature—for some clue as to whether it is important in solving the puzzle of her family’s dysfunction. Was there an indication that she missed along the way, something that she didn’t pay attention to that could have prevented a tragedy? What could she have done better, what could she have done differently? At different points, both she and Bruce sing: “I want to know what’s true/ Dig deep into who/ And what and why and when,” a peek into how similar their seemingly disparate lives are.
All this soul searching escapes melancholia under Director Sam Gold’s light touch, which smartly avoids gilding the lily, relying instead on the bare brilliance of the words and music. The story is served well by showcasing Kron and Tesori’s score, a combination of funky, light-hearted pop and revelatory ballads like Alison’s mother Helen’s showstopping Days and Days, beautifully sung by Susan Moniz.
Fun Home runs an hour and forty minutes with no intermission. It will leave you wanting more. More answers, more music, more Joan. It’s worth the want.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Fun Home” through November 13 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph St, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.