I know Lisa Kron's adaptation of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which runs through July 30th at the 5th Avenue Theatre, won five Tony awards "including best musical." I know Kron is great because I saw Sarah Rudinoff playing her playing herself in Well last year, and that was great. But I still had my concerns.
If you don't know the story about Alison (Kate Shindle) and her father (Robert Petkoff), Alison perfectly summarizes it for you in two sentences: "He was gay; I was gay. He killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist."
But it's actually way more complicated than that. The Bechdel family lives in rural Pennsylvania. Bruce is an English teacher. He's married to Helen (Susan Moniz), an accomplished playwright, and together they have three kids. When he's not teaching everyone in the town how to read books, he's directing the family's funeral home (or "fun home") or busy trying to turn his house into a museum-quality antique. Sometimes he hires young men, some of whom are underage, to assist him in his ventures. He gets them drunk and he has sex with them. Alison didn't know about her father's closeted homosexuality until she came out to him in a letter, and the combination of jealousy and pride he feels when she does this sends him into a tailspin from which he never really recovers.
For me, the strength of Bechdel's graphic novel lies in its bookishness. Alison and Bruce could only honestly communicate about their sexuality through literature, and readers who know the stories she references gain special access into their world, becoming closer to Bechdel as she becomes closer to her father. This experience of connecting to an author and thus to another human being through a shared canon isn't particular to books, but it's central to their utmost enjoyment, and I just couldn't see how it was possible to reproduce all that nuance in a musical. My worry weirdly inversely reflects Bechdel's concern in the book. She's constantly wondering how many of her father's habits she'll inherit, which is to say she's also constantly wondering whether or not she'll be a faithful adaptation. Too faithful would be...bad. Just faithful enough to be her own person but still retain her father's talents would be...mostly good.
Then I saw this.
The children in the photo above are dancing to a '70s TV funk-style jingle called "Come to the Fun Home," which they wrote as a commercial for their family business—a mortuary. (Get it? Fun
"Your uncle died / you're feelin' low," Luké Barbato Smith bellows out in his kid bellow.
"You've got to bury your father/ but you don't know where to go./ Your papa needs his final rest./ You got-ta-got-ta-give it the best."
Once that number started I realized the casually macabre, kinda nerdy humor that drives Bechdel's book rests comfortably in a genre that has long used those same tonal strategies to talk about dark truths. In musicals, there's just way more sequins. Kron's script included all the major allusions from the source, and her use of metaphor felt both literary and dramatic.
Anyhow, no one else in the audience seemed to G one tiny little F about my concerns. The opening night crowd made their excitement and pleasures known throughout the evening. In the lobby before the show I noticed some light Bechdel cosplay going on, though cropped hair, horned-rimmed glasses, and a white button-up aren't exactly uncommon among women in Seattle.
The show's dark humor drew laughs from the expensive seats all the way up to the not-so-cheap ones. And when college-aged Alison (or as she's called in the script, "Medium Alison") claimed to be asexual, a possibly asexual contingent behind me whooped and hollered. Even the asexuals felt included.
Speaking of Medium Alison! All the Alisons turned in formidable performances, but Abby Corrigan showed the greatest depth and range. She nailed the bookish, breathy manner the role requires, and she knew precisely when to overdo it. She established her chops in "Changing My Major," the best song in the show, but showed admirable restraint in the closing number. Her voice developed along with her character, which is what should be happening all the time. I fell out of my chair when I learned that she just graduated from high school.
Robert Petkoff plays Bruce with all the cold rage of his counterpart in Bechdel's graphic novel, adding an element of charm and warmth that retroactively seems necessary but absent from his character in the book.
Though the performances were all incredible, I do have a few gripes about the production.
The orchestra is split in to the Fun Home Orchestra that tours with the show and the 5th Avenue Theatre Orchestra, which is composed of string players and a music coordinator. Tom Dziekonski played viola/violin, Virginia Dziekonski was on the cello, and Dane Andersen coordinated. These strings were off or missed their cues on at least three separate occasions during the performance I saw, and the sound was occasionally muffled.
Furthermore, the decision to place the orchestra onstage, albeit in the back shadows, didn't make sense to me. It made the funeral home feel like an Irish pub on a Friday night.
David Zinn's sets supported this Irish pub feel. For the first third of the show, a giant brick wall dominates the upstage area, so it looks as if you're on the outside of some institutional building, or on the inside of a very large bar. Halfway through, the set blooms into a richly mahoganied and beautifully wallpapered museum of a house, and then at the end, of course, all the furniture winds up in a deconstructed pile.
I get it. Scenic elements need to tell the story, too. The house is a tragic metaphor for Bruce's interior life. He (and a few young handymen) spends all of his time restoring the property, and if only he spent that much time and effort on the people who live inside that property, maybe he wouldn't have stepped out in front of a bread truck. It works. But still, the giant brick wall contributed to a good deal of visual confusion early on.
These elements by no means ruined the show, but they detracted from the greatness of the acting and made me yearn for the more nuanced, private pleasures of the graphic novel. Luckily for me, Fun Home's always also going to be a book, and I still have my copy.