Review: Sex, Memories, A Family Adrift

Feb. 25, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Fun Home," Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, Feb. 22, 2017

Dysfunctional families are nothing new in the theatre.

If parents didn’t harbor dark secrets that caused them to torment their spouses, mistreat their kids and, when exposed, send everyone running for the therapist’s couch, much of world drama – from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Arthur Miller – might not exist.

Now you know what drives the characters to their emotional distraction and our sublime edification in the imaginative, lyrical, and all around sensational musical Fun Home, only now setting up house at The Ahmanson Theatre, though it opened on Broadway in 2015.

The show takes its through-line of psychological abuse, sexual identity and suicide from the life and work of the lesbian cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. The title of her topical comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For gives you some idea of where the narrative in the play is headed.

It’s an understatement to say that Alison’s relationship with her troubled, detached father, Bruce (Robert Petkoff), is complicated. He’s a small town high school English teacher. He also runs the local funeral home and, not least, is a closeted – or so he believes – homosexual who preys on his former male students. As Alison – played by three fine actresses of different ages – struggles to accept her own sexual orientation, she must confront the truth about Bruce and his role in shaping her own sexuality.

If all of this sounds disquieting, dreary or untenable, it’s not. The musical is exquisitely engrossing, and often a lot of fun, too.

Playwright Lisa Kron has fashioned an absorbing book that seamlessly moves back and forth in time and memory, instilling the narrative with unexpected humor and tenderness.

Jeanine Tesori artfully modulates her gorgeous, nuanced score to suit the play’s shifts in tone from wistful, to tragic, to comic and back again. While mostly expressing some form of heart-tugging regret, she’s not above throwing her audience a few crowd-pleasing crumbs.

The hilarious I’m Changing My Major To Joan, sung with comic zeal by Big Alison (Kate Shindle) after her first lesbian experience in college, stops the show. So does the zany, gleeful mock funeral home TV commercial Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) and her two little brothers (Lennnon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador) dream up to amuse themselves when dad’s not around.

The cast, under Sam Gold’s confident direction, is uniformly first rate, especially Petkoff, a commanding presence as Bruce, and Shindle who, as Big Alison, is tasked with serving as a kind of narrator for the evening’s expansive proceedings.

Susan Moniz is rock solid as the brood’s long-suffering mother, Helen. She shines in Days and Days, her big dramatic number near the play’s end in which she pours out her anger about the life choices she has made.

Sets, lighting and musical direction are tidy but pitch perfect. The play looks and sounds terrific in The Ahmanson’s large, sometimes unwelcoming auditorium. An intimate show with a chamber orchestra shouldn’t work there, but this one does – and brilliantly so.

Fun Home runs through April 1.

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