Friday, January 27, 2017

"Fun Home"

Fun Home
Jeanine Tesori (Music); Lisa Kron (Book & Lyrics)
Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel

“My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town.
And he was gay,
And I was gay,
And he killed himself,
And I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

Kate Shindle & Robert Petkoff
As blunt and bleak as this summation appears, the musical that fills out the entire story of a small-town, Pennsylvania family -- while heartbreakingly sad at points -- also finds plenty of room for many chuckles and some big laughs, heartwarming memories, first-love romps, and difficult but powerful self-discoveries.  Told as a series of interlocking but out-of-sequence frames of a graphic novel in the process of being drawn, Fun Home is a musical in many ways unlike any before it.  Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics (based on the original, graphic novel by Alison Bechdel) map the somewhat random thought patterns of a creative, remembering mind of an artist as she pieces together her troubled relationship with a father she describes as so much like her ... as nothing like her.  Each word of a song or spoken phrase is placed with purpose of advancing her memoir of self-exploration; and the music of Jeanine Tesori in both background score and in songs supports, clarifies, and amplifies those words without ever trying to overshadow or outshine them.  Carole Shorenstein Hays and Curran Theatre gloriously reopen the reconstructed, historical theatre with a spectacular cast and stunning production of the 2015 Tony for Best Musical, Fun Home.

Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan & Alessandra Baldacchino
While busily at work with sketch pad usually in her hands, a grown-up Alison of forty-three struggles to come to terms with a period of her life when she comes out as lesbian while in college at about the same time her mother tells her that her dad has always been a closeted gay -- both occurring just four months before he steps in front of an advancing truck.  As she reflects and draws, her sketches spring to life on stage as a Small Alison of eight and a Medium Alison of nineteen join her to create memory-rich moments piecing together a puzzle that might in its completion provide some answers of the many why’s running through her mind. 

Why did a little girl who so desperately wanted her daddy’s love and attention so often get rebuked and ignored?  Why did her mother tolerate so many years her dad’s obvious trysts with gardeners, delivery guys, college jocks, and even high school boys?  Why could her dad not accept who he was as she has been able to accept who she is?  Why was she not able to help him, to save him? 

Her pointed and detailed probing about gender boundaries, sexual orientation, parental tensions and disruptions, emotional abuse of children, and finally suicide are balanced by other, happier memories of sibling silliness, reading a book or singing at the piano with Dad, or soaring high in the air in his arms like an airplane.  And her own story of the first inklings she has as a little girl that she is gay and of the final confirmation as a late teen in a dorm bed with a hot, to-be girlfriend that for sure she is a lesbian fill in more frames of her graphic, somewhat disconnected story  -- a story that in the end is a narrative that finds uneasy but possibly healing resolution.

Kate Shindle is the adult Alison with short-cropped hair and black, squared-off glasses who physically roams about through the memories that are playing out around her on the huge, Curran stage (exposed all the way to its back, bricked walls).   Along the way, she watches silently as she sketches -- sometime offering spoken commentary and often probing her past in song with pensive, brow-knitted looks of exploration coupled with moments of bright clairvoyance as the pieces magically come together into some new ‘ah-ha.’  “I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then,” she sings with a voice determined, clear, and strong.  Ms. Shindle never steps too far out of character of the serious, searching cartoonist/writer and brings much face validity to her adult Alison as a lesbian and daughter in pursuit of who, how, and why she is.  However, when she duets “Telephone Wire” with her dad on their last car ride together on his night of final tragedy, her emotion-packed images of that ride on a dark, country rode and her own hesitation to talk honestly to her dad are sung with spine-chilling effects.

Alessandra Baldacchino
Her story is mostly told through the exceptional acting and singing abilities of her eight- and nineteen-year-old selves.  In a voice full of a little girl’s relentless pleading and yet already a voice hinting at the determined adult she will someday become, Alessandro Baldacchino is the youngest of the Alisons (a role played in some performances by Carly Gold) who insists in the musical’s opening lines, “Daddy, hey Daddy ... I need you ... Come here, hey right here ... Listen to me ... I wanna play airplane.”  Time and again in short interjections and full songs, this young Alison sings with heart, crispness, and a maturity that commands attention.  When she vocally relates in “Ring of Keys” with youthful glee, awe, and a clear sense of “uh-oh” how the sight of a delivery woman (“an old-school butch,” the older Alison comments) grabs her little girl fancy, both the young actress’s stellar abilities and the lyricist’s daring brilliance shine forth in describing this seminal moment:
“Your swagger and your bearing
And the just-right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace-up boots and your keys ...
Oh, your ring of keys.”

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador & Lennon Nate Hammond
When joined by her younger brothers Christian (Pierson Salvador) and John (Lennon Nate Hammond), the three provide one of the night’s biggest applause-getters as they perform their own commercial for their dad’s funeral home, a 1970s, kids’ rock number, “Come to the Fun Home,” complete with a Pledge Polish spray can as microphone.  Dancing in, out, and all around a cherry-wood, satin-filled coffin and singing with voices that soar silly without shrilling, they advertise, “Come to the Fun Home, we got Kleenex and your choice of psalm; stop by the Fun Home, think of Bechdel when you need to embalm.”

As the middle Alison at Oberlin College, Abby Corrigan provides perhaps the evening’s most poignant, powerful performance among a cast where each person is perfectly cast.  Her heretofore tomboyish, rather shy and hesitant Alison explodes into hormone-rich ecstasy with her discovery of her sexual identity as she literally tackles the object of her affection, the hair-spiked Joan (played with surety of her sexual sensuality by Karen Eilbacher).  When Ms. Corrigan sings “Changing My Major” (“to sex with Joan”), she beautifully reflects all the mixed-up feelings of someone just coming out: hesitant, scary, ecstatic, triumphant, totally turned-on.  But when she seeks her parents’ approval of her coming out and returns home to confront their silence on the subject, Ms. Corrigan’s nerve-raw, nuanced acting prowess touches to the core as she hits the target time and again in capturing all the emotions for this teen ... and for the older Alison who is remembering her.

House refurbisher, beloved teacher, and funeral home director but also a closeted, cheating husband and a controlling father, Bruce is a complex man whom Alison is trying to figure out through her juvenile and teenage glimpses of him.  Robert Petkoff sings with a clear voice that shows much excitement and joy in simply looking at an old discovered teapot.  With young Alison, he asks, “Is this silver?  Is this silver or junk?”  In doing so, he seems to be reflecting the watching, older Alison’s question about the relationship she had with her dad.  Was it real?  Was it mutual love?  Was it all surface and full of tarnish? 

Mr. Petkoff’s Bruce is an enigma for her and for us.  We watch him in his escapades, his tirades, and his often-feeble attempts to be a good father and husband.  What we often see is a face that smiles without meaning it, that looks without seeing, and that tries to sound sure and solid with lots of fear and anguish so obviously evident.

As the mother and wife, Helen, Susan Moniz is often in the background, playing a piano alone in the parlor or slipping in and out with worried, perturbed looks.  While her family sings in the beginning of the musical about a household that is all “polish and shine” with “everything balanced and serene,” Helen sings a telling premonition, “And yet.”  Eventually, she has a chance to describe her view of the house on Maple Avenue in “Days and Days.”  In another of the evening’s most wrenching moments, Helen sings in a pained, matter-of-fact voice that grabs one’s listening heartstrings and tugs them deeply as she sings in ever-rich, increasingly intense voice of “days made of bargains I made ... now my life is shattered and laid bare days and days and days ... Welcome to our house.”

Showing much versatility of personas and demonstrating his own rich singing voice, Robert Hager steps into many roles, including a Partridge-Family-like rock star in young Alison’s dream (“Raincoat of Love”) and a hunky, shirtless pick-up for Bruce who poses as a household helper.  Along with the rest of the cast, Sam Gold provides him and all members with impeccable, time-and-boundary-stretching direction where scenes blend, shift, and mold with split-second precision as Alison recalls her life and draws her story frames. 

David Zinn’s immense stage design where scenes play out on different levels, groupings, and islands is deftly orchestrated in its many changes with a flow that reflects memory’s sparks and fades.  His costumes define the different time periods of the story, the various ages of Alison, and the range of personalities portrayed. 

Ben Stanton’s lighting design is a show unto itself -- but always an enhancer and never a distraction.  Blocks of spotlight define rooms and boundaries; lighted outlines of over-lapping squares remind us of the frames the cartoonist is drawing, and shadows that loom large and ominous warn of what is to come.  Danny Mefford’s choreography adds needed upbeat fun and frivolity when the kids get to be kids.  Kai Harada’s sound design provides the background to give proper context and mood.

Finally, not enough praise can go to Micah Young as Music Director/Keyboardist and to his finely tuned orchestra of seven.  Time and again the soft interventions of cello, violin, clarinet, or other solo instruments echo in soft refrain an important moment on stage or introduce a subtle shift in the cartoonist’s framed story.  The score of Jeanine Tesori is one of the best in memory for a modern-day musical, and this small orchestra provides full justice to her singular and combined lines of musical reflection.

The Cast of "Fun Home"
How could there be a better way to inaugurate the next generation of life for the venerable Curran Theatre than with a musical like Fun Home that seems as if it were written with San Francisco and its diverse audiences in mind?  Congratulations to Carole Shorenstein Hays and to every member of her staff and of the touring cast.  Fun Home is a destination to be visited in person and then repeatedly re-visited in follow-up contemplation.

Rating: 5 E

Fun Home continues at the Curran Theatre through February 19, 2017, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus

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