‘Fun Home’ an emotional journey that shows power of theater

Editor’s note: This review was written after a performance of “Fun Home” in Houston earlier in the national tour.

Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel “Fun Home,” a complex memoir interweaving her own coming out narrative with her father’s suicide and her discovery that he, too, was gay, did not exactly demand to be adapted into a Broadway musical. Nevertheless, that’s what the duo of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) did, garnering the Tony Award for best musical in 2015.

Now, the national tour of “Fun Home” comes to the Long Center for a weekendlong engagement.

In the cultural fervor over the 2016 Tony winner, “Hamilton,” there has been much discussion about what musical theater should and can look like in the 21st century. “Hamilton” demonstrates the type of musical theater that is big, loud, expansive and mythological; “Fun Home” is a superb example of the power and possibilities of the stage in a more subtle way.

“Fun Home” is a small, quiet show by Broadway standards. It is performed in one act, with no intermission, by a cast of nine actors, with only two sets. Rather than exploding outwards, as a show like “Hamilton” does, “Fun Home” digs deep inside the psyche of Alison and her father. This is shown on stage by Alison summoning the memories of her family, particularly her father, as she paces around her drawing board and weaves in and out of scenes, working on the cartoons that will eventually become “Fun Home.”

RELATED: “Fun Home” takes story of family secrets from page to stage

Kate Shindle is pitch-perfect in this role, providing enough snark and self-awareness to ground the audience even as the show shifts radically back and forth in time.

Shindle is not the only actress who plays Alison. We also see her as a little girl, yearning for normalcy and self-expression amid the repressive atmosphere created by her father, and as a college student first coming to grips with her own sexuality. Carly Gold as Small Alison and Abby Corrigan as Medium Alison, as they are called, are every bit as strong as Shindle, and together the three actresses create a deeply moving and heart-wrenchingly intimate portrait of the whole Alison.

Robert Petkoff plays Bruce, Alison’s father, throughout all three phases of her life, and his unique chemistry with each of the actresses is raw, painful and gripping to watch. The sternness and sterility of his parenting in Alison’s youngest days, and his descent into the mania that characterizes the months leading up to his suicide, are tempered by the few, rare moments of connection between the characters.

Susan Moniz, as Alison’s mother, Helen, is a steady background presence to all of this, until she is given a truly heart-breaking song late in the play that finally expresses the deep pain underneath that steadiness. She gives voice to the grief that lies at the heart of Alison’s remembered relationship with her father, a grief that runs through the entire musical.

“Fun Home” is an example of the kind of raw, beating emotional heart that a truly expressive, personal musical can create. It is simultaneously dynamic and intimate, charming and complicated, hilarious and heartbreaking. Most of all, it is not to be missed.

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