‘Fun Home’ is fully fur­nished with ex­em­plary per­for­mances

The Washington Post - - THE WEATHER - BY PETER MARKS

Some­times, the tour­ing ver­sion of a Broad­way suc­cess arrives in town wear­ing a scarlet M — for meh. The sus­pi­cion that the tech­ni­cal ele­ments won’t be up to par, or the ac­tors suf­fi­ciently ex­pe­ri­enced, or the pro­duc­tion ad­e­quately rested, can plant doubts in the minds of ticket buy­ers about get­ting the best that a given show can of­fer.

Well, “Fun Home” fans-in-the­mak­ing, cast skep­ti­cism aside. The trav­el­ing in­car­na­tion of the Tony-win­ning mu­si­cal that oc­cu­pies the Na­tional Theatre for the next 31/ weeks is not only a firstrate

2 rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the work of com­poser Jea­nine Te­sori and book writer and lyri­cist Lisa Kron. It also in some sig­nif­i­cant ways con­sti­tutes a more pow­er­ful evening than was built at off-Broad­way’s Pub­lic The­ater in 2013 and trans­ferred to Broad­way for an 18month run.

The show it­self, based on a graphic mem­oir by Ali­son Bechdel and di­rected on the road as in New York by Sam Gold, is brac­ingly honest, touch­ingly wise and bit­ter­sweetly funny. While it tra­verses some sen­si­tive ter­rain — the Penn­syl­va­nia house­hold of a trou­bled man who lived and died a puz­zle to a daugh­ter strug­gling with her own iden­tity — the mu­si­cal is by no stretch a downer. In­stead, it is a joy­ful reck­on­ing with painful things.

Gold has had de­signer David Zinn aug­ment the Broad­way set, and restaged to su­pe­rior ef­fect a few piv­otal se­quences of the one­act mu­si­cal, which had its of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton open­ing Wed­nes­day night. And he has as­sem­bled a cast of ex­em­plary cal­iber, so good it stands up eas­ily to the qual­ity of the orig­i­nal. The stand­outs in­clude all of the prin­ci­pals, with spe­cial medals of ac­com­plish­ment due to Abby Cor­ri­gan, who plays Ali­son at col­lege age and is — mark my words — a bud­ding star, and to Karen Eil­bacher, who por­trays Joan, the Ober­lin class­mate who guides Ali­son over the thresh­old of sex­ual awak­en­ing.

Cor­ri­gan’s ren­di­tion of one of the evening’s peak mu­si­cal mo­ments, the en­dear­ing “Chang­ing My Ma­jor,” brings to the fore all of the melodic vi­tal­ity of Te­sori’s com­po­si­tions and the off­beat wit

of Kron’s lyrics: “I’m chang­ing my ma­jor to Joan,” Cor­ri­gan sings, with Eil­bacher as the self-pos­sessed girl­friend asleep un­der the dorm room bed cov­ers. “I’m chang­ing my ma­jor to sex with Joan/ With a mi­nor in kiss­ing Joan.”

“Fun Home” is a mu­si­cal about ini­ti­a­tions and dis­cov­er­ies, or­bit­ing around the sor­row that ad­heres to the adult Ali­son (a ter­rific Kate Shin­dle) as she re­flects on the se­cret life and ghastly sui­cide of her fa­ther, Bruce (Robert Petkoff, in an in­vig­o­rat­ing, un­sen­ti­men­tal per­for­mance). The dad, a clos­eted gay English teacher who cruises bars, tries to se­duce stu­dents and, seem­ingly in­ex­pli­ca­bly, re­tains the loy­alty of his wife, He­len (Su­san Moniz, also ex­cel­lent), is such an enigma that it takes three Alisons to re­trace his er­ratic steps. Shin­dle is iden­ti­fied as Ali­son, Cor­ri­gan as Medium Ali­son and the equally ef­fec­tive Alessan­dra Bal­dacchino as Small Ali­son, who wants to have her fa­ther close and can’t fathom the wall of anger he builds to keep her and the rest of the fam­ily at arm’s length.

As it cy­cles through the in­ter­ludes of Medium Ali­son at school and Small Ali­son at home, the story of “Fun Home” might ini­tially seem a bit ran­dom. It’s ac­tu­ally all quite de­lib­er­ately and solidly plot­ted, a por­trait of an artist — Ali­son is a car­toon­ist — work­ing through the twist­ing path of me­mory to un­der­stand how her iden­tity con­verged with and di­verged from her fa­ther’s. Slowly, the mu­si­cal un­packs its tragic truth, that her fa­ther was born into a darker age, when the op­por­tu­ni­ties for sex­ual self-ex­pres­sion that lib­er­ate Ali­son were not avail­able.

Among the mem­o­rable songs, ac­com­pa­nied by a seven-per­son on­stage orches­tra con­ducted by Micah Young, are those chart­ing turn­ing points in Ali­son’s com­ing to terms with her at­trac­tion to women.

The ebul­lient “Ring of Keys,” for ex­am­ple, makes Small Ali­son’s recog­ni­tion of that at­trac­tion, in an or­di­nary mo­ment in a diner, warmly con­crete. A mas­cu­line woman en­ters, and the girl is smit­ten by “Your swag­ger and your bear­ing/ And the just-right clothes you’re wear­ing/ Your short hair and your dun­ga­rees/ And your lace-up boots.” It’s the po­etry of ev­ery­day sur­prise.

Some other num­bers of­fer comic re­lief from the show’s ru­mi­na­tive at­mos­phere, among them the sweet pop ditty “Come to the Fun Home,” set in the show­room of the fam­ily busi­ness, the fu­neral par­lor that Bruce has in­her­ited. One of the plea­sures of “Fun Home” is the way it man­ages to shift seam­lessly to a child’s per­spec­tive and present as nor­mal some of the more ec­cen­tric as­pects of Ali­son’s up­bring­ing. Per­formed by Alessan­dra with the two other adorable ac­tors who play Ali­son’s broth­ers, Pier­son Sal­vador and Len­non Nate Ham­mond, “Come to the Fun Home” is their ris­i­ble en­act­ment of a pre­tend TV spot for the Bechdel Fu­neral Home.

“We got Kleenex and your choice of psalm,” they sing. “Think of Bechdel when you need to em­balm!”

Think of Bechdel, too, when you want to ex­pe­ri­ence the buoy­ant, poignant direc­tions that mu­si­cal the­ater is tak­ing. Fun Home, mu­sic by Jea­nine Te­sori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the graphic mem­oir by Ali­son Bechdel. Di­rected by Sam Gold. Sets and cos­tumes, David Zinn; light­ing, Ben Stan­ton; sound, Kai Harada; or­ches­tra­tions, John Clancy; mu­sic di­rec­tion, Micah Young; chore­og­ra­phy, Danny Mef­ford. With Robert Hager. About 1 hour 45 min­utes. Tick­ets, $48-$98. Through May 13 at Na­tional Theatre, 1321 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave. NW. Visit then­ation­aldc.org or call 202628-6161.

JOAN MAR­CUS

Stel­lar per­for­mances by the cast, which in­cludes Karen Eil­bacher, left, as Joan and Abby Cor­ri­gan as Medium Ali­son, will elate au­di­ences of the tour­ing “Fun Home,” which plays at the Na­tional Theatre.

JOAN MAR­CUS

Kate Shin­dle plays the adult Ali­son in “Fun Home,” which tra­verses sen­si­tive ter­rain but re­mains joy­ful. It runs through May 13.

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