BY SANDY STAGGS
As patrons somberly filed out of the Peace Center after the opening of “Fun Home,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
That’s because this musical is exquisite, emotional, enthralling, endearing and unorthodox in every way from its non-linear narrative to its uniquely personal coming-of-age and coming-out story based on an unprecedented source material ‑ Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel.
Winner of 5 Tony Awards including best musical, best score and best book, “Fun Home” is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, played brilliantly on this national tour by former Miss America Kate Shindle.
Shindle is the adult Alison, a 43-year-old artist who is writing/illustrating her memoir at her drafting table, looking back on her life (and the proceedings) and specifically her father, Bruce (Robert Petkoff). And right away she discloses that she is a lesbian and that her father was gay and committed suicide.
In a clever device reminiscent of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” Lisa Kron’s outstanding book depicts our heroine at three different ages though they never interact except musically: Small Alison (10 years old) is embodied by the spunky Carly Gold and Medium Alison is played by the fantastic Abby Corrigan, the finest vocalist in the trio.
Life is usually loads of fun for the Bechdel children in the 1970s in “Fun Home,” a euphemism for the Bechtel funeral home. The inherited Victorian residence is a historic mansion that is also serves as a mortuary.
And the siblings ‑ Alison and her brothers Christian (Luke Barbato Smith) and John (Henry Boshart) – are generally spared the more macabre elements of the family business, spending their days popping out of a display coffin and concocting a funeral home commercial on cassette tape “Come to the Fun Home,” which recalls the Jackson 5 sound. And Small Alison even retreats into a fantasy sequence, “Raincoat of Love,” modeled after the “The Partridge Family” TV show.
There is, however, one brief disturbing scene in which Bruce asks Small Alison to assist in prepping a “client.” This peculiar moment is a subconscious attempt by her father to bear witness to his dark facet, or his closeted side, without uttering a single word.
This is just one of the pivotal moments in Alison’s life that shaped her as a woman and as a lesbian like refusing to wear a party dress instead of jeans much to her dad’s chagrin.
She recalls a revisionist encounter with an old-school butch in “Ring of Keys” as Small Alison recalls the handsome woman’s “short hair, dungarees, laced-up boots and your ring of keys.” And Medium Alison has an epiphany of her sexuality with her first love and liaison with the politically-conscientious Joan (Victoria Janicki) in “Changing My Major.”
But it’s being robbed of her coming-out moment that offers the most poignant revelation when she finds out her father is and always has been gay. That news ironically comes from her mother Helen, played with gut-wrenching empathy by Susan Moniz, whose aria “Days and Days” astutely captures the soul of a shattered woman who has painfully tolerated Bruce’s many indiscretions and even arrest for corrupting a minor.
Bruce’s dalliances with a number of men (all played by the Robert Hager) come to light as the adult Alison recalls, in hindsight, the numerous signs that were there all along. And it’s their excruciating lack of communication that leads to director Sam Gold’s stunning use of silence and long dramatic pauses. It is so quiet, one could hear a hairpin drop and the sound of the fly-in being raised. This culminates beautifully in the climatic and gut-wrenching “Telephone Wire” when their internal monologues reel but they can never talk to one another about their shared sexuality.
Jeanine Tesori’s score is gorgeous from the first note by the bassoon (or oboe) that is echoed by the violin in “It All Come Back” and the Sondheim-esque recurring and overlapping motifs that follow.
The staging is unorthodox as well: a sparse set with a few antique furniture pieces that are constantly being re-arranged in all planes of the stage to show a distorted perspective paralleling Alison’s memories of the events. And the small 8-piece orchestra is positioned upstage which opens up the pit for extra seating.
Also notable in this production is the lighting by Ben Stanton (Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening”) with his horizontal beams and marvelous rainbow-edged frames that harken comic book panels.
“Fun Home” continues through Sunday the Peace Center, 300 South Main Street in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.