Caption. Audience chatter subsides as action begins without warning on stage. An adult cartoonist doodles away on the fringe of an exposed set.
The curtain was open since we came into Mortensen Hall, but we barely noticed. We saw it, sure, but it just scratched the surface of a complex story with layers of comedy, self discovery, and tragedy.
Welcome to the “Fun Home” – a touching musical meets graphic novel with swagger. It’s adapted from the 2006 bestselling “family tragicomic” by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. An adult Alison (Kate Shindle), self-described as a lesbian cartoonist, sketches a story for us, and ultimately herself, about growing up in her family’s funeral home and coming out in college. Her autobiographical cartoon seeks to answer a deeper question as she digs away at the layers to understand her closeted gay father and his suicide.
The musical is aptly set in a funeral home, which Small Alison (Carly Gold) and her brothers call the “Fun Home” in their play commercial that gets all the laughs because of the hysterical, popping, and undulating physical comedy of the child actors. That dynamic dance sequence is full of zest and lively fun, everything that a funeral home – a place of sorrow and death – is not. But from the perspective of a child living in the present, it’s perfect.
And it makes sense because adult Alison is coming to terms with her dad’s death and whether her coming out triggered depression about his own closeted lifestyle and his demise.
Bruce shows Alison a glimpse of death when he calls her in to hand him scissors while he is dressing a dead body to prep it for a funeral. But she always wonders why. Just as her father’s personal life and decision to end his life remain big questions for her.
The structure of the show is rather interesting. We see Alison’s dad sternly lecturing her on the distinction between being an esteemed artist and mere cartoonist, as well as spewing his literary opinions, trying to shape her into who he wants her to be. Her mom is very active in the arts world as well as an actress and she doesn’t want to be bothered with Alison’s inquisitiveness while she’s playing piano. But their parenting ends up being mostly theatrics and unravels when Alison comes out to them in a letter and they are very absent when she needs them the most. She has to navigate through her sexual identity and life herself from a teen on.
In parallel, it takes her coming out for her father to understand himself as a married closeted gay man. Her father withdraws to live his lifestyle and then tries to brush it under the carpet. As Alison puts it, he kills himself and she ends up a lesbian cartoonist. He promises her a ride in a car to talk about things, but that doesn’t happen until she’s an adult. And even then there’s no real substance to the conversation. Alison sings about the telephone wires, maybe because she longs for understanding and communication. And her mom is a victim in the situation. It seems like Alison’s coming out becomes about everybody but Alison.
Robert Petkoff demonstrates character arc in the closeted Bruce while hiding it on the surface at the same time. His internal conflict manifests in tension with his wife and snapping at his family. Alison’s mother has to shoulder the disclosure of his affairs with men because Bruce can’t find the voice to tell it himself. Ultimately Alison takes on telling his story.
The interaction between an adult Alison scrutinizing and commentating on her past and her child and teen selves gives so much more dimension to her character. The adult narration over the visual action of her youth sparks comedy, like when she’s reacting to some of the diary entries she wrote.
“Fun Home” is light-hearted and brings child perspective into the story so well. The juxtaposition of raw innocence with more complex themes give this musical depth. The songs are deliberate and introspective rather than frivolous singing for the sake of the song. You see this in “Ring of Keys,” very melodically and emotionally well-delivered by Carly Gold, as Small Alison sings about her experience of being attracted to a woman for the first time and identifying with someone who is more like her even though she doesn’t quite understand her feelings.
“Ring of Keys” is the song you come to see “Fun Home” for and it is the one you’ll leave remembering. That and Medium Alison (Susan Moniz) singing “Changing My Major” (to Joan) about her first romantic encounter with a girl. The innocence of Moniz’s delivery produces sheer and honest comedy. The trio harmony between the three Alison’s toward the end was the most melodically beautiful music in the show.
Otherwise “Fun Home” isn’t a musical full of catchy tunes. It’s more about the story. The actors sing more for character than tonal quality, sometimes straining, but their musicality is evident and it makes the songs real and honest. Sometimes you do lose what they are saying in the layering of the voices singing or talking at the same time.
The orchestra is set upstage rather than underneath in the pit. The set’s simplicity and high attention to detail make it feel like home, even if it is a FUNeral home. The lighting complimented the scenery well, with use of shadow for Bruce in one of his solos and the window on a family trip.
The show comes full circle at the end with Small Alison calling for her dad’s attention and wanting to play airplane. And we’ve seen both of them struggle and endure chaos. All Alison wanted was his attention, approval, and investment in her. But adult Alison leaves us with this – “Caption. Every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.” Despite their rocky course, there is love in there somewhere.
It makes you wonder, if your life were a cartoon, how would you caption it?
“Fun Home” runs at The Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford) through Sunday, June 25. More information on tickets for the production is available at https://bushnell.org.