Review: ‘Fun Home’ at The National Theatre

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I never made it up to New York to see Fun Home. I did the same thing with The Ramones; it just always seemed like there’d be time to do it later. Fortunately for me – and unlike my gaffe with Joey, Johnny, DeeDee, and Marky – Fun Home gave me another chance.

The National Tour Company of Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The National Touring production of the Tony-Award-winning Best Musical, featuring music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, and direction by Sam Gold, opened last night at the historic National Theatre (“National”) in Washington DC.

The musical, which is based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir of the same name, is itself an historic accomplishment. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Fun Home went on to be nominated for twelve 2015 Tony Awards, taking home five of the coveted medallions – Best Musical (the first win for a show written exclusively by women), Best Book, Best Direction, and Best Leading Actor in a Musical. The team of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori also won Best Score, making them the first female writing team to be awarded that honor. Not only that, it’s also the first Broadway show to feature a lesbian leading role. Like I said: historic.

Between the critical acclaim and the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the Grammy-nominated soundtrack, I knew I was going to love the musical; but what of this particular production? I. Loved. It.

Having not seen the Circle in the Square performance, but I can tell you that the staging at the National is fantastic. Adult Alison, a 43-year-old cartoonist, observes and narrates the dysfunctional childhood she is remembering as she writes and draws her graphic memoir. As the excellent cast reenacts scenes from earlier stages of her life, Alison watches and reacts from her perch behind her grown-up drawing desk, from over the shoulder of Small Alison on the ornate couch, and from the dorm-room bedside of Medium Alison. If Director Sam Gold made scenic compromises to be able to take this show on the road, it doesn’t show. The set is beautiful and feels complete, particularly the museum-like Victorian-style family home on Maple Avenue.

Music Director (and keyboardist) Micah Young conducts the Fun Home Orchestra – Jakob Reinhardt on guitars, Alan Stevens Hewitt on basses, Philip Varricchio on reeds, Suzanne Orban on cello, Kyung LeBlanc on violin/viola, and John Doing on drums/percussion – who are visible during the performance, upstage on an elevated platform. Young and Associate Music Director Alex Harrington have a lot to be proud of. The musicians were flawless as they accompanied this outstanding cast on an hour and a half of fun, captivating, moving songs.

From her opening solo in “It All Comes Back” to one of my favorites – the heartfelt, heartwarming “Ring of Keys” – Alessandra Baldacchino wowed me as Small Alison. Though young, Baldacchino has a powerful voice that you just know you’ll be hearing much more of in the future on the Great White Way.

Kate Shindle shines not only while showcasing her splendid singing voice in beautiful, melancholy songs like “Maps” and “Telephone Wire,” she is equally impressive in her spoken narrative as adult Alison. Shindle’s Alison is by turns wryly funny and tragically regretful as she recounts interactions with her dad and opportunities lost. Her performance is genuinely moving.

Of all the Alisons, though, Abby Corrigan – as Medium Alison – won me over the most. And it’s not just because she sings the most charming song in the show, “Changing My Major.” Corrigan’s voice is sublime; practically operatic in scope, yet touched with just the right amount of teen angst, she nails every song she sings. But it is her ability to radiate that combination of awkward self-consciousness and the exhilaration of youthful discovery and possibility that got me. She wore all those coming-of-age feelings right out in the spotlight and I think everyone present connected with her, and with the play as a whole. At least I did.

Robert Petkoff is excellent as Alison’s dad, Bruce Bechdel. To say Petkoff’s character has a lot going on would be a gross understatement. Working as hard to maintain a “normal” façade as he does to rehab old houses into showplaces, Petkoff’s Bruce makes you wish that he could see the beauty beneath his own surface as easily as he sees the silver under a grimy, tarnished coffee urn. His failure to do so wreaks havoc on not only himself, but also his family and students. From upbeat ensemble songs like “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” to his heartrending solo in “Edges of the World,” Petkoff gives a nuanced performance that captures Bruce’s complicated emotional life.

Susan Moniz plays the longsuffering-in-silence Helen Bechdel. In her haunting solo, “Days and Days,” she finally breaks her silence and powerfully sings out her truth. In it, she reprises a line from “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” that in some ways sums up the show: “Chaos never happens if it’s never seen.”

Also noteworthy is Karen Eilbacher who, as Joan, left an impression on me. Despite having less stage time than some of her castmates, and not having a big song to sing to introduce herself, Eilbacher nonetheless fully embodied her role as a bold, politically-engaged lesbian college kid. The result was a feeling that I knew all about her, even though the script only provides the broad strokes.

Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond play Christian and John Bechdel, respectively. These kids, as Alison’s younger siblings, threaten to walk away with the show in their big number with Baldacchino’s Small Alison, “Come to the Fun Home.” Their singing rocked and I’m still chuckling over their awesome dance moves.

Kate Shindle (Alison), Abby Corrigan (Medium Allison), and Alessandra Baldacchino ( Small Alison) in Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rounding out the cast is the chameleon-like Robert Hager, who tricked me into thinking his roles of Roy, Mark and Pete were performed by multiple actors. My favorite of his characters, though, was Bobby Jeremy. Singing the discoriffic “Raincoat of Love” with “the Susan Deys” (Abby Corrigan and Karen Eilbacher), Hager reminded me of my long-forgotten crush on David Cassidy.

Fun Home is a show that deserves all the accolades and awards that it’s received. It’s funny and tragic and vulnerably honest and human. The writing is smart, the dialogue’s quick and the music is fantastic. This touring company production of Fun Home at the National Theatre in DC is a must-see. Don’t be like me with The Ramones. Fun Home is here now. Whether you saw it in NY or not, go see it as soon as you can. Trust me, you’ll regret missing it.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission

Fun Home plays through May 13, 2017, at the National Theatre – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 514-3849, or purchase them online.

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