'Fun Home' demonstrates how musical theater can hit on poignant truths

'Fun Home'

'Fun Home' Joan Marcus

Alison Bechdel's 2006 memoir Fun Home, written in the format of what the cartoonist calls a "tragicomic," isn't exactly the kind of book that cries out to be turned into a Broadway musical. It's a darkly funny, non-linear exploration of Bechdel's relationship with her father, who died when the author was a young woman; she believes his death to have been a suicide linked to his despair over being a closeted gay man.

Fun Home

Orpheum Theatre

The creators of the 2013 stage show -- Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) -- rose to the challenge and won a well-deserved Tony for Best Musical when the show moved to Broadway last year. Fun Home is now at the Orpheum Theatre in a superb touring production, and you'll rarely see a show that so compellingly demonstrates the power of musical theater to communicate complex truths about human nature.

To make the show work this well took a long series of smart and successful decisions by the creative team, including director Sam Gold and set designer David Zinn. After initially experimenting with the onstage use of drawings, Kron and Tesori ultimately decided to adapt the format of Bechdel's memoir more conceptually than literally: Though we see an adult Alison (played here by Kate Shindle) onstage throughout the show, working at a drawing table, only once do we see in any detail what she's actually drawing. What's relevant about the comic format, Kron and Tesori understand, is that it can simultaneously explore multiple perspectives.

In the musical, that means that Alison often shares the stage with one or even two younger versions of herself: a school-aged girl (Alessandra Baldacchino) and a college-aged woman (Abby Corrigan). As does the book, the musical travels back and forth through Alison's life as she tries to understand the significance of various events and experiences.

Robert Petkoff plays Alison's father Bruce, and he immediately registers as a warmer presence than the stern-faced father of the book. Along with Tesori's warm score (played by an onstage ensemble), the portrayal helps tip the show's scales toward empathy rather than anger -- which is also the place the book gets to, just not quite as quickly.

There's an operatic quality to the subtle integration of music into Fun Home's narrative: characters often tip into song when spoken words fail them, and there's a suggestion that they're singing as much to themselves as to anybody else. Tesori's songs have appealing melodies and uncluttered arrangements, but there's a deliberately hesitant quality to the way certain phrases are repeated or left incomplete. Plenty of musicals have songs where the characters sing about being confused, but Tesori and Kron capture that ambiguity in the very structure of their songs. We're both told and shown that these characters are still figuring it all out.

The show takes place on a stage that's initially set sparsely --  just a couple clusters of furniture against an exposed brick wall, with a raised platform for the musicians -- but turns out to hold some surprises. Lighting by Ben Stanton defines discrete spaces as we travel back and forth through the story of this family who live in a renovated house that Alison's mom (Susan Moniz) calls a "museum" of her husband's obsession with period decor.

That's not the house the show's title refers to, though: "fun home" is an abbreviation of the family business, a funeral home where Alison and her brothers (Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond) grow up playing in caskets. Another home Alison inhabits is her dorm room, where she and her girlfriend Joan (Karen Eilbacher) enjoy a freedom and openness that Bruce never felt he could.

You can expect good pipes and solid professionalism from a touring Broadway cast, but this Fun Home production goes above and beyond that, balancing infectious energy and a delicate touch. Corrigan, in particular, knocks her scenes out of the park: She can play character-based comedy to a house the size of the Orpheum without diminishing the complexity and poignancy of her coming-out experience.

Fun Home is the best kind of adaptation. It doesn't just translate its source material onto the stage -- that would be achievement enough -- but complements it and extends it. You'll find that it extends into your own life, and that its impression lingers long after you've left the theater.