The intimate examination of family in the musical ‘Fun Home’

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

The musicals that most of America knows is created with broad strokes.

They are big entities with big stories. The nuances of a character’s motivation are glossed over for the larger picture.

Think “Wicked.” Think “Phantom of the Opera.” Think “West Side Story.”

Deep behind the stories, there are details that motivate the characters. But by the nature of the musical, those pieces of data are used only by performers to guide their performance but never find their way into the actual script.

But there are shows that are more intimate. They are created on a more human scale. And they use the art form of the musical to convey more personal tales.

Think “Next to Normal.” Think “Falsettos.” Think “Spring Awakenings.”

“Fun Home,” which I saw at The Bushnell in Hartford June 20, falls into the latter category.

The musical, which is based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, is about a family in Pennsylvania. The father, Bruce (played by Robert Petkoff) is a type-A personality, who is in the constant process of renovating the family home, while teaching at the local high school and running the family funeral home (hence the title “Fun Home.”) The wife, Helen (played by Susan Muniz), is the willow that bends as her husband’s whims and tantrums threaten to disrupt the family’s life. And there are three children, two boys, Christian (played by Luke Barbato Smith) and John (played by Henry Boshart) and a girl Alison. As the story bounces back and forth between time periods, Alison who is seen as a pre-teen (Carly Gold) , college student (Abby Corrigan), and an adult (Kate Shindle).

The adult daughter is the narrator and the story is seen through her eyes.

The story is about figuring out your own identity. In particular, the identities in crisis are Bruce’s and Alison’s. Bruce is a closeted gay man, who furtively and recklessly explores his hidden sexuality. Alison finally comes out as a lesbian while she is away at college.

Although two of the characters are gay, this is not necessarily a “gay musical.” It is first and foremost a stage show about the dynamics of family. It is a play about how a family copes with a member’s mental illness—Bruce is clearly a manic-depressive. And it is play about finding your identity—and the sadness that comes when you cannot be who you want to be and the joy that comes with the revelation of who you truly are.

The story is touching and in so many ways is one most of us can relate to.

The music, composed by Jeanine Tesori, effectively reflects the intelligence of the story. It also is written on a personal level, more of a chamber music piece than a symphony. Some songs are moving. Some songs are fun. Some help advance the story in ways dialogue alone might not have been able to do.

And the music is gentle and sensitive in a way that seems entirely appropriate for the delicate subject matter.

The performances up and down the cast list were stellar.

Carly Gold as the youngest Alison was wonderful. Sometimes young performers feel like young performers on stage—a bit tentative, a bit too cute. The scripts are dumbed down for their roles to make it easier for them to perform. But Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, pulled no punches in her words. The lyrics and dialogue were complex, clever, and inciteful. Gold tackled them with great aplomb and great mature.

Petkoff also did a great job conveying the highs and lows experienced by his character, but never allowing the part to devolve into pitiful or melodramatic. We didn’t feel sorry for him, we felt his pain. We didn’t despise him. We liked him and we wanted what was bes for him.

The narrator role in general is difficult because, by its nature, that character is outside of the proceedings. But Shindle did a great job of finding the balance between serving as the audience’s guide through the story and as the character on stage who is most affected by and most emotionally invested in what unfolds because she lived it… and survived it.

“Fun Home” did a great job in entertaining us and inspiring us to reflect on our own lives and how much of what is experienced by the Bechdels is what we experienced as well.

I give “Fun Home” four out of four stars.

“Fun Home” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford on Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

For tickets, go to www.Bushnell.org

The cast of ‘Fun Home’ now at The Bushnell in Hartford.