Fun Home Overflows with Humor and Honesty — Too Much for Some Audience Members

Kate Shindle as Alison and Robert Petkoff at Bruce in Fun Home.
Kate Shindle as Alison and Robert Petkoff at Bruce in Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus
Alison Bechdel just wants to know what’s true. She wants to know why her dad was often so angry, controlling and physically distant. It’s not because he runs a funeral home. Maybe it’s because he’d rather be paying attention to his passion, collecting antiques and restoring houses. But it’s probably because he was in the closet yet married to her mother. She knew, her mother did. Alison’s mom knew because he kept secretly stepping out on her, often getting caught. At times being charged by the police. So why did her mother stay? And why, a mere four months after Alison herself came out as gay to her family, did her dad commit suicide? That’s the question that really haunts her.

No one would blame you for thinking this wasn’t exactly the most uplifting backdrop for a musical. But looking at the angst and the sadness in the subject matter misses the point of this beautiful gem that is the 2015 Tony Award-winning (including Best Musical) show Fun Home. Yes there is sorrow in the story, but there is also an overflow of humor, sweetness, sensitivity and honesty that grabs your heart for 90-plus intermissionless minutes and never lets go. Fun Home is at its core a universally human story. A thoughtfully humane one too. And in this touring production, a magnificent adaptation and performance of the original show (Music by Jeanine Tesori and Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron) that brought Broadway to its knees.

Based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel, Fun Home is a scrambled chronology narrative. “I always knew I was going to draw you”, says an adult Alison (Kate Shindle) the omnipresent narrator of the show. Now in her forties, she’s trying to come to terms with all that happened in her family the one way she knows how, by cartooning.

“Caption”, says Alison, drawing board in hand, trying to come up with a pithy title for various times in her childhood and college years she’s about to show us/write about. Unsure if her memories of what happened are vapors or burning bushes, she struggles to get the gist of each scene right. To understand why they all did what they did. We feel her uncertainty with empathy and watch the tableaus she presents to us, as eager as she is to get the clues that will allow everything to make sense.

The first three numbers "It All Comes Back, "Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children..." and "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue" takes us back to the 1970s to show us Alison as a child (Carly Gold), her two brothers, Christian and John (Luke Barbato Smith and Henry Boshart), and her mother (Susan Moniz) navigating the overbearing whims of their father Bruce (Robert Petkoff). Much of the domineering is aimed at Alison, a tomboy who doesn’t want to wear a dress or don a barrette in her hair. Bruce will have none of it, sternly lecturing her on the dangers of embarrassing oneself and the importance of outside opinion.

Of course we know his anger at her is really anger at his own need to keep in control. His bombast a deflection for the pain he must feel not living as he truly is. Of course we already know that Bruce’s repression and anger will eventually be the death of him. So it’s smart then at this juncture that we get a little levity.

Tesori and Kron wisely lighten up the mood by allowing the young siblings to kill us with hilariously funky cuteness. In addition to teaching, Bruce runs a funeral parlor (called Fun Home by the family) where the kids help out once in a while. While Bruce is busy preparing a body in the back room, the trio treat us with their make believe family business commercial “Come to the Fun Home,” which features the young talents booty shaking on and in a casket to groovy ‘70s beats. It’s a showstopper.

“Caption” again and now we are with Alison at college (Abby Corrigan) finally figuring out that she’s gay and experiencing her first sexual encounter, told with humorous heart-swelling emotion in the audience favorite number “Changing my Major”. But even as Alison is coming alive, she’s still under her dad’s thumb. Reading what he tells her to, thinking what he wants her to. Breaking free from who she was, Alison posts a letter telling her parents about her newfound sexuality.

From there we bounce back and forth between the two Alisons, filling in gaps of her coming of age and coming out. But as Alison’s life takes off, Bruce begins to unravel bit by broken bit. It’s all modulated by a score that punctuates emotionally yearning ballads with upbeat humorous or at least smile-worthy songs. We sniffle with understanding and budding happiness as young Alison first feels the stirrings of her gayness in “Ring of Keys”. Our souls are stirred and broken in “Days and Days” as Alison’s mother explains with bitter frustration how and why she stayed with Bruce all those years. We choke back frustration as neither Alison nor Bruce seems able to talk about their shared sexuality in the wrenching “Telephone Wire”. And we watch in pitying horror as Bruce’s mania comes to a head in the difficult “Edges of the World”.

Adult Alison draws as much and as fast as she can, but she can’t really make sense of it all. Too many of her questions have no answers. Was she responsible for her father’s suicide? Should she have seen it coming? Could she have done something? She’ll never really know. She’ll never really understand. And that’s the humanity in Fun Home. If we’re very lucky and do the work, we can learn to know ourselves. But to know others – particularly others that don’t let themselves be known - we can draw the images all we want, but they remain only outlines, never shades of color.

As questions with unknowable answers are at the core of this show, it would be remiss not to present a few of our own in closing.

Why was the audience on opening night of this emotionally striking Tony Award-winning musical, making its debut in Houston, so sparse? Does everyone have tickets for another eve? Do folks wrongly believe this is a political show about sexuality as opposed to a riveting and melodic musical about family and the malignancy of secrets? Maybe those that saw and loved it in New York incorrectly think that the touring show’s proscenium stage (as opposed to theater in the round) saps some of the show’s impact. They’d be wrong. While some intimacy is lost, the ability to see every actor’s face at all times brings an added oomph to the emotions. Not to mention this new staging gifts us with set design that fully realizes the gorgeously antiqued interiors of Alison’s home.

And what about the folks that walked out. Sitting near the front I saw close to 20 people exit the theater, most right after Alison declares she’s gay, but others trickled out as close to ten minutes before the close of the show. Who knows if more left behind me where I couldn’t see. What was their deal? I have a hard time believing anyone took issue with the impeccable cast or expressively rich production. So I suppose it was the story itself? A discomfort with a lesbian as a main character? Or the suicide of a gay man? Do people not pay attention to what Fun Home is about before snapping up a ticket?

Like the enigmatic questions the musical presents, these are things we’ll never know. Like Alison, we too have frustration, not just in the not knowing, but in the behavior itself.

Fun Home continues through May 28 at Hobby Center. 800 Bagby. For tickets, call 713-558-8887 or visit $46.50 to $125.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman