Fun Home is a special show. The 2015 Best Musical Tony winner features a female, lesbian protagonist (the remarkable Kate Shindle playing graphic novalist Alison Bechdel), and an emotionally complex story conveyed through a refreshingly frank lens (book by Lisa Kron) and a sophisticated, counter-intuitive score by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Kron (lyrics).
The fact this show is touring at all is a marvel - and a testament to the power of superb storytelling. Because, on paper, a story about a lesbian graphic novelist's life growing up in a funeral home with a closeted father who kills himself sounds, at best, like a hard sell. However, the result is beautifully poignant, and surprisingly universal, 90 minutes of theatre.
After all, who hasn't grappled with self-discovery? Or understood how age brings loss and regret, but also a deeper understanding of fundamental human truths?
And, more specifically, coming out stories are rarely explored in commercial mediums, yet they are essential in helping evolve society's awareness and acceptance of such journeys.
Yes, Fun Home does all of that. (However, I have some reservations, which I'll get to in a moment.)
But first I must commend this cast, which is among the best I've seen in a national tour. This story demands honest, unadorned performances, and not single false note is felt. Along with Shindle, Alessandra Baldacchino and Abby Corrigan play "small" and "medium" Alison respectively, helping tell Bechdel’s story during seminal life moments. And both are outstanding. Chicago favorite Susan Moniz breaks one's heart as Helen, the family matriarch, giving a moving late act performance of "Days and Days," which is a masterclass in restraint and probably the best song in the show. Robert Petkoff adeptly manages the complex task of humanizing Alison's deeply troubled and fiercely buttoned-up father.
On Broadway, Fun Home played in the round, offering an intimate and exposed experience. This tour has been adapted to fit a proscenium setting to play to large touring houses, such as the Oriental, which boasts 3,250 seats. Director Sam Gold has made some smart staging decisions to ensure this small show isn't gobbled up in such spaces. He, along with scenic designer David Zinn, have pulled that action inward and forward, keeping most of the action as close to the audience as possible.
However, if I'm being fully honest, I’d prefer seeing this cast in a different production, in a smaller venue. The resulting staging makes this tour feel both claustrophobic and distanced. It also feels like it's a miss not to use Bechdel's drawings to help paint in more color and depth - especially if such an intimate story is being adapted for such cavernous venues. Perhaps this tour would have benefited from embracing the size vs. fighting against it.
In other words, sometimes smaller is just, well, smaller.
I know I seem overly focused on the physicality of this production, but I feel this is important. Especially in Chicago, which excels at intimate and powerful storytelling. I look forward to revisiting the Fun Home when a local company does it. Perhaps then the power will fully resonate. As it stands, despite the stellar material and top-notch cast, this tour packs a potential punch, but doesn't fully deliver beyond the footlights.
"Fun Home" plays through November 13 at the Oriental Theatre. More info here >