Metro-East Living

‘Fun Home’ is a stirring musical

Disarming in its power, honesty and humanity, “Fun Home” is one of the most moving theatrical experiences of my life.

Not since “Once” have I been so emotionally stirred by a musical. The tears came in a torrent at the climax, well-earned.

Alison Bechdel’s candid story of self-discovery and heart-breaking account of her troubled family connects in a most basic primal way.

Alison, who came out as a lesbian in college, would grow up to become a renowned graphic artist, and write a best-selling graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” which has been turned into this remarkably tender and touching Tony-winning musical.

The difference between a family’s outward appearance and its inner secrets have been a familiar theme in fiction since recorded history. But Bechdel, who knows of that torture on both sides, took the credo ‘Write what you know” to heart, and did it her way.

Her old soul and artist’s creativity allow us in, to see her at three stages – Small Alison, around 9; Medium Alison, in high school and college; and grown-up Alison at 43. Gracefully rendered, her life journey resonates with all of us.

I don’t know too many people who grew up in a picture-perfect all-American family that resembled any TV sitcom of the 1960s. And Bruce Bechdel was no Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady.

Bruce was a high school English teacher who also ran a family funeral home. He lived with his wife and three children in a Victorian home that he restored into a show place for antiques, flea market finds and treasures scored in garage boxes of junk.

His time-intensive hobby and need for control over his family masked a secret – he was a closeted gay man who struggled with his sexuality, which eventually led to criminal charges.

Set in the 1970s in small-town Pennsylvania, the show deftly depicts the period and era mindset.

Thrilling in its bold attempt to show a family fraying at the seams, the creative team has carefully crafted a story without a false note.

It’s rare to see such attention to detail in a touring show, but given the larger space at the Fox, director Sam Gold and his meticulous scenic designer David Zinn have created an intimate feel.

The compassion of composer Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics writer Lisa Kron, who made history as the first women’s team to win Tonys for musical score in 2015, is evident in the luscious score.

Mom Helen’s lament about staying in her situation, “Days and Days” is a haunting powder-keg, and Susan Moniz delivers it beautifully.

Kate Shindle is a revelation as grown-up Alison, still trying to come to terms with her father’s suicide and inability to admit he was gay. The former Miss America 1998 wins us over with humor and heart.

The younger Alisons are both superb, projecting a kid’s unvarnished look at their parents and home life. It’s gut-wrenching to see Bruce’s devastating decision once we know the girl’s probing questions and unsatisfying answers.

Alessandra Baldacchino, recreating the young role she played on Broadway, is a natural, and shines on the potent “Ring of Keys,” smart beyond precociousness.

Abby Corrigan is equally impressive as the college girl trying to figure out who she is, and the giddy ode to first love, “Changing My Major,” is a blissful high point.

The lynchpin in this production, however, is Robert Petkoff as Bruce. He gives a masterful performance of duality – trying to be a responsible family man and respected citizen while unable to quell reckless behavior.

A profound sadness that he couldn’t be who he truly was during a more repressed time surfaces, but lest you think this show is dreary and dark, that’s not the case. A work this authentic feels freeing and refreshing.

Uplifting humor is used, too. Played for laughs is a funeral home commercial the kids stage.

Music Director Micah Young briskly leads the band on a platform in the back instead of in the pit, another unique touch.

The musical is not structured in a typical linear format, but uses flashbacks and flash-forwards that illuminate the chronology. There is no intermission, either.

Lean, generous and daring, “Fun Home” is striking in its originality and unforgettable in its truth.

“Fun Home”

  • Now through Nov. 27
  • Fox Theatre
  • Metrotix: 314-534-1111