Reviewed by Mayank Keshaviah
Through April 1
Memory is rarely linear, clearly outlined, or objective. Instead, we tend to remember the past in soft focus, in impressionistic portraits of events relived through the lenses of emotional and psychological revisionism. As such, it’s not only fitting but perfect that Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) have created a Tony Award-winning musical that feels just as vulnerable and imprecise as memory itself. With its Sondheim-esque songs and its non-naturalistic staging by Tony-winner Sam Gold, Fun Home constantly reminds us of the jagged edges of memory.
As it does, it also bravely shares the story of the first-ever lesbian protagonist in a Broadway musical. That protagonist — based on Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic novel that was adapted into the musical — is represented in three phases of her life: as 9-year-old Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino), 19-year-old Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan), and adult cartoonist Alison (Kate Shindle), who serves as our narrator. What’s striking is that all three are often present on stage together, observing, commenting on, or even intruding into each other’s stories, again reflecting the hazy borders of memory.
As the three Alisons piece together Bechdel’s story of coming to terms with her sexuality, we also learn about her closeted father Bruce (Robert Petkoff) who, living in 1970s Pennsylvania, does everything he can to hide his own predilections behind a façade of fastidiousness and snobbery. He throws himself into his avocation of historical home restoration, as well as his vocations of teaching and operating a funeral home (the titular “fun home”), all while largely ignoring his actress wife Helen (Susan Moniz) and his other two kids, Christian (Pierson Salvador) and John (Lennon Nate Hammond).
Bruce also arranges secret trysts with former and current students (all played by Robert Hager). He even goes so far as to take his kids on a trip to New York City, which they believe to be a tourism weekend, but which neatly coincides with Fleet Week, when all the sailors are in town. Helen dutifully bears his affairs, even though she knows what’s actually going on.
Medium Alison starts to understand who her father really is after she comes out to her parents by letter, an act motivated by her first lesbian experience at Oberlin with Joan (Karen Eilbacher). Their courtship, which is hilariously and authentically awkward in its flirtation, leads to Medium Alison declaring that she is “changing my major to Joan.”
While the songs, with their sophisticated musicality and unconventional rhyme schemes, are generally interwoven into scenes, “Telephone Wire,” “Changing My Major,” and the iconic “Ring of Keys” do stand out. Lighter numbers like “Come to The Fun Home” (with its Jackson 5 homage) and “Raincoat of Love” (with its Partridge Family dream sequence) furnish the show with its period flavor and colorfully showcase Ben Stanton’s disco lighting.
David Zinn’s sensibly Spartan scenic design provides enough props and set pieces to give us a sense of place while at the same time exposing the brick wall at the rear of the stage. Yet when necessary, the Bechdel family home becomes sumptuously decorative to showcase Bruce’s restoration, a clever reveal in which a wall becomes a ceiling.
Gold’s direction is masterful, both in terms of staging that spans time and place and in drawing out such raw performances from his actors. Petkoff teeters between deep insecurity and surface-level arrogance, manifesting as harshness with a daughter who shares his secret. Corrigan skillfully showcases the intersection of collegiate awkwardness and enthusiasm, while Baldacchino transforms from a fun-loving child into one who starts to understand the dysfunction within her family. Eilbacher is strong and seductive as the socially conscious lesbian activist, and Moniz captures a seething anger that lives just beneath the surface.
The actors’ performances are facilitated by Kron’s incredibly authentic and funny book that gives us an intimate understanding of a girl coming to terms with being gay during different stages of her life. In that way, both she and Tesori most certainly pass the Bechdel test.
Ahmanson Theater; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m.; through April 1. (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.