Human fallibility & home restoration

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday February 1, 2017
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Abby Corrigan is one of three performers playing the lead<br>character in <i>Fun Home,</i> in this scene as<br>a sexually confused college student soon to discover her path, with Karen<br>Eilbacher playing a militant lesbian, in the musical now at the Curran Theatre.<br>Photo: Joan Marcus
Abby Corrigan is one of three performers playing the lead
character in Fun Home, in this scene as
a sexually confused college student soon to discover her path, with Karen
Eilbacher playing a militant lesbian, in the musical now at the Curran Theatre.
Photo: Joan Marcus

Perfection may not exist in nature, but in the unnatural world of the theater, Fun Home comes pretty close to achieving that distinction. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the best musical or the most enjoyable ever conceived, but even contenders for those honors usually have a conceptual glitch or two that we usually forgive. But there is nothing in Fun Home that I could imagine changing to better tell its story. It's as if a lightning bolt flowed through its creators, but in reality, the results were achieved the old-fashioned way: years of trial and error.

The musical's ascent toward rightness could be cold comfort without the warmth found in its story of grudging acceptance of human fallibility. A family tragedy is at the center, but it is acknowledged almost immediately, while the musical then looks back on the family's life through several decades of good times, bad times, strange times, and confusing times. The trajectory is not a gathering of clouds toward an impending doom, but a quest in hindsight to understand how all the pieces might fit together.

Fun Home, which took the Tony Award for best musical in 2015, is the inaugural theater production in the beautifully renovated Curran Theatre. The musical derives from Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home, which carries the subtitle "a family tragicomedy." Bechdel was already known for her syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For when Fun Home was published in 2006, and despite its success in the gay and lesbian community, it was hardly sought-after material for a musical, never mind a Broadway hit.

But through seven years of off-and-on development, librettist and lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori took the illustrated novel apart and put it back together with an uncanny reach to a perfect storm of musical storytelling. It's the tale of a character who just happens to be named Alison Bechdel, and is told through three characters portraying her as a tomboy adolescent, a sexually confused college student, and a middle-aged cartoonist who hovers over the time-shifting scenes as a narrator and commentator trying to sort out meanings in her memories.

That her father was a closeted gay man who committed suicide is the family tragedy acknowledged near the top of the show, and that is then given fuller context near the end. But while what happens in-between is occasionally unsettling, it is often joyous and comedic as Alison copes with a family that may or may not be more idiosyncratic than yours. True, most kids don't have a family funeral home to play in, but Alison and her siblings make it into a fun home. And their father is a rabid perfectionist, especially about his historically accurate home renovation, making him a tyrant who can also be helpful and even a playmate in a specific variation on those flawed beings known as parents.

The score created by Kron and Tesori does contain standalone songs, but much of the musical work is so interwoven with the action that no song list is published in the program. This is Kron's first outing as a lyricist, and her words have a kind of conversational poetry that fits right in with Tesori's score that has its own sense of meandering direction that always finds its destination.

The cast of this tour is pretty much first-rate from top to bottom. Of the three Alisons, my personal favorite is Abby Corrigan as a geeky college student awkwardly trying to come to terms with her sexuality (achieved with an understanding militant lesbian brashly played by Karen Eilbacher), but Alessandra Baldacchino (at most performances) as precocious young Alison is also a delight as she struggles for her father's elusive approval. Kate Shindle plays grown Alison, a difficult role because it's as much an observer as a participant, and certain shadings that could enhance it are missing. Robert Petkoff finds a heart in what could be an ominous character as Alison's father, and Susan Moniz is heartbreaking as his long-suffering wife who knows his secrets.

Director Sam Gold originally staged Fun Home for a proscenium theater at the Public Theatre, then had to reimagine it in the round when it moved to Broadway's Circle in the Square. And then for the tour it was back to proscenium stages. The production on view at the Curran looks made for the space, with David Zinn's scenery offering a big surprise midway through the show.

It may seem strange to call Fun Home a feel-good musical, but that is what it finally delivers in the end. In fact, it feels something of a tonic for toxic times, not so much in a forget-your-troubles, come-on-get-happy way, but more as an affirmation of the human capacity for empathy even when it's a battle to call it forth.

 

Fun Home will run at the Curran Theatre through Feb. 19. Tickets are $29-$185. Call (415) 358-1220 or go to sfcurran.com.