'Fun Home' At The Curran Is As Funny, Wrenching, And Complicated As It Was On Broadway
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
For the inaugural production at the newly renovated, thoroughly gorgeous Curran, producer and artistic director Carole Shorenstein Hays brought a show that had won wide praise and several Tony Awards, despite being a truly unusual and challenging piece of theater that grew out of a production at The Public Theater in New York. Fun Home looks to be indicative of the kind of envelope-pushing, not very commercial theater that often does not make it west of Broadway that Shorenstein wants to bring to the Curran — in contrast to the more family-friendly, easily digestible fare that more often goes on tour after a Broadway run, and passes through one of the houses of SHN SF, the organization Shorenstein Hays helped to build several decades ago. Based on the acclaimed graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, the musical tells the story of Alison, growing up in rural Pennsylvania with her two brothers, mom, and a dad with a secret whose life story, cut short by suicide when she was a freshman in college, obviously haunted her into adulthood and required her to tell it.
The cast is anchored by the three Alisons — Small Alison, played by Alessandra Baldacchino, who made her Broadway debut in the role and reprises it for the SF run; Medium Alison, played by Abby Corrigan; and Big Alison, played by Kate Shindle. They share the stage throughout, and the adaptation makes this work without confusion, bouncing back and forth through time with Big Alison mostly only serving as narrator and observer, and the stories of Alison at seven and Alison at 18 dovetailing with each other with ease.
Big Alison tells us from the outset that her father killed himself, so the story is about the emotional landscape of this family as she remembers it and tries to draw it, the process of her drawing and captioning each scene a framework for the songs by composer Janine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) and lyricist and book writer Lisa Kron (who also wrote In the Wake). And it's also about how she came out as a lesbian, the early, innocent inklings when she was a girl who hated dresses, and as an awkward college student making her first, astonishing sexual discovery — it's here that Medium Alison gets to steal the show with the song "Changing My Major," the entire scene proving that Corrigan, with all her delightful, unedited spastic energy, is most certainly going to be a star.
The show-stopping number, though, and the one with the most hummable tune, comes from small Alison, and it's the song "Ring of Keys" that you may have seen performed at the Tonys — a song about identifying with her first butch lesbian, even though she didn't even know it at the time.
As Alison's antiques-obsessed, high school English teacher/undertaker dad, Bruce, Broadway vet Robert Petkoff is a powerful presence, and Petkoff interprets this difficult, unlikable character with the appropriate balance of empathy and confused rage. The culmination of the show, in which Petkoff and Shindle get their only moment together in song, is an especially moving one. Bruce, we ultimately understand, was a victim as much of the society in which he was raised as of his own failures of imagination, and his own deep stubbornness.
And as her mom, Helen, who gets her single, wrenching solo near the end of the show, Susan Moniz stuns, and makes sure to temper all of her complicated anger and regret with love.
Director Sam Gold has now had to adapt this production twice, once from the original proscenium-stage version at the Public to the ingenious in-the-round version at Circle in the Square on Broadway, and now again to a proscenium for the tour. There is a powerful visual revelation that he gets to accomplish here in the final third of the show, with the excellent help of set designer David Zinn, that creates a more powerful denouement than in the Broadway production, but I won't spoil it for you.
Bechdel did an illustration of The Curran for the first program at the revamped theater — the programs, like the choices of show, are set apart from the norm with help from McSweeney's — and among the figures in front of the theater she adds a dialogue bubble: "That was exactly like my family. But totally different..." It's something you could easily hear among the theatergoers on opening night, many of them probably not gay or lesbian, or with memories of a troubled dad who took his own life. After all, it's a highly unusual and sad story — and all the more unusual as the basis for musical theater. But in various ways, writers and composers have been blowing up the form for decades now, and Fun Home, with all of its intimacy and specificity, is a poignant story for the ages, even though its subject matter calls to mind the kind of tragedies that are usually reserved for opera.
In short, it's a deserving opening act, so to speak, for a theater that looks like it will be bringing new life to the local scene, and it shouldn't be missed.