Review: ‘Fun Home’ at The Curran (****)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

In 2015, a fantastically original new musical, based on an exceptional literary work (not a play), and featuring queer characters in unexpected contexts burst onto Broadway. This musical famously captured the attention of the political class when US  Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, brought a group of UN ambassadors — including some from very homophobic countries like Russia — to see the play and meet with the cast.

Of course, you know, I’m not talking about “Hamilton,” but, rather “Fun Home,” the award-sweeping (five Tonys! two Theatre World awards!) musical based on the graphic novel by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which she constructed from her personal experiences. “Fun Home” is the first Broadway musical about a lesbian (unless you count Mary Martin starring as “Peter Pan”).

Thanks to Carole Shorenstein Hays and her team, San Francisco is privileged to host the first national tour, beautifully staged by Sam Gold, who helmed both the original off-Broadway debut and the Broadway production.

The cast of "Fun Home" from L to R: Leonnon Nate Hammond as John, Karen Eilbacher as Joan, Pierson Salvador as Christian, Abby Corrigan as Medium Alison, Kate Shindle as Allison, Robert Petkoff as Bruce, Susan Moniz as Helen, and Alessandra Baldacchino as Small Allison.
The cast of “Fun Home” from L to R: Lennon Nate Hammond as John, Pierson Salvador as Christian, Karen Eilbacher as Joan, Abby Corrigan as Medium Alison, Kate Shindle as Alison, Robert Petkoff as Bruce, Susan Moniz as Helen, Alessandra Baldacchino as Small Alison, and Roberg Hager as Roy-Mark-Pete-Bobby-Jeremy.

In my experience, touring companies don’t get any better than this, and, with the added joy of seeing it in the recently refurbished Curran Theatre (certainly one of the most thrilling theatrical venues in North America), this is truly a best-of-Broadway experience in San Francisco.

The story of the Bechtel family is told through the eyes of the eldest child, Alison. It moves through time from Alison’s childhood, through her adolescent college years (when she comes out as a lesbian), and into her midlife when she tells the story of her coming out (and her father’s subsequent suicide) in a graphic memoir. We know from the beginning that Bruce will kill himself, and we travel with Alison through her empathetic memories, as she strives to make peace with a difficult family legacy.

It doesn’t sound like fun, but Bechtel is a humorist who knows how to find the funny in human folly, even in death. Death is like an additional character in “Fun Home” — the title refers ironically to the not very fun family home under her schoolteacher father’s dictatorial rule, but also to the family business: the Bechtel Funeral Home, where the children often play while their rather prissy father ministers to corpses. The Bechtel siblings rehearsal of a ridiculous, silly, and over-the-top “television commercial” for the funeral home is full of laughs and family fun.

The cast is excellent, especially the marvelous Abby Corrigan. As medium (adolescent) Alison, she experiences coming out (under the kind tutelage of college girl-friend, Joan, played convincingly by Karen Eilbacher), and then learns of her father’s closeted gay life. Medium Allison carries a lot of the play’s emotional weight. Small Allison (Alessandra Baldacchino) does a spectacular job with the famous show stopper, “Ring of Keys.” As the middle-aged Alison, Kate Shindle keeps everything well grounded.

Alison’s complex, hurting and hurtful father, Bruce, is a demanding role played with great skill by Robert Petkoff. A man who is domineering, controlling, and self-centered to a dangerous fault, Bruce is also a loving father, a more-or-less loyal husband, a charming seducer, and a molester of teenagers, who is also a well-loved public school English teacher. Petkoff captures these ambivalent qualities, and teaches us to empathize with the man, without sugar-coating his serious faults.

As Bruce’s heart-broken wife, Helen, Susan Moniz provides what is perhaps the show’s most moving sequence, when she sings the heartbreaking “Days and Days,” in which she describes her marriage to an emotionally absent man.

Young performers Pierson Salvador and Lennon Kate Hammond are charmingly charismatic as the Bechtel siblings, and Robert Hager does well in multiple roles as Bruce’s various male friends.

This review can’t close without an appreciation of the wonderful refurbishment of the Curran Theatre. It has been polished from top to bottom, and is truly a theatrical palace — modern artistic touches blend beautifully with the original architecture of 1922. Although huge, it creates an amazing intimacy which can be felt from the highest balcony to the front of the orchestra. It makes every other Broadway style house in the Bay area look relatively shabby by comparison, except, perhaps, the War Memorial Opera House.

“Fun Home” plays at The Curran Theatre through February 19, 2017. For further information, click here.

Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here)
_____________________________

“Fun Home,” a Public Theater production produced for the Curran by Carole Shorenstein Hays. Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Director: Sam Gold. Music Supervision: Chris Fenwick. Choreography: Danny Mefford. Sets and costumes: David Zinn. Lighting: Ben Stanson. Sound: Kai Harada. Orchestrations: John Clancy. Music Director: Michael Young. Music Coordinator: Antoine Silverman.

Cast: Alison: Kate Shindle. Small Alison: Alessandra Baldacchino/Carly Gold. Medium Alison: Abby Corrigan. Bruce: Robert Petkoff. Helen: Susan Moniz. Christian: Pierson Salvador. John: Lennon Nate Hammond. Joan: Karen Eilbacher. Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby/Jeremy: Robert Hager.

 

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