Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Uncle Vanya and Cameron's review of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord
On a scale of pleasurable experiences, attending a national tour falls somewhere between an emergency appendectomy and an extended visit from your in-laws. The audiences who flock to these performances tend not to be virtuous theatergoers. They shove their overpriced concessions into their gaping mouths throughout, in between swigs of twenty-dollar merlot. They talk when they feel like it, text when they feel like it, and you can rest assured that cell phones (plural) will ring. I swore off national tours some time ago, but even the prospect of a hellish audience couldn't keep me from catching the Philadelphia engagement of Fun Home, on stage through Sunday at The Forrest Theatre.
That Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's musicalization of Alison Bechdel's 2006 memoir is even receiving a tour, much less a profitable one (it recouped last month), is something of a miracle. Fun Home is a quiet, thoughtful, adult musical that lives up to Tolstoy's maxim that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Bechdels of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, wrestle with questions of identity, deferred dreams, self-preservation and suicide over the course of 100 intermissionless minutes. These topics are addressed in a sensitive but forthright manner, and Kron and Tesori ask their audience to give each element the same painful consideration that the Bechdel family must. Those who expect to leave musicals whistling a happy tune are in for a rude awakening.
On Broadway, Fun Home played the cozy Circle in the Square and was staged in the round. Director Sam Gold has restructured the production to accommodate the larger, more traditional touring venues it now occupies. Although the Forrest is actually smaller than most road houses, it still has nearly 1,900 seatsalmost triple the show's New York capacity. I worried that some of the musical's immediacy would be lost. I needn't have: Gold and his terrific team of David Zinn (sets and costumes) and Ben Stanton (lighting) smartly utilize the proscenium constraints to maximize the production's intimacy. Much of the action takes place downstage, with the actors just a few feet from the lip of the stage; this semblance of physical closeness counts for a lot. And Gold and Zinn pull of a stunning coup-de-theatrewhich I won't reveal, but you'll know it when you see itthat never would have been possible when the show played the Circle. This tour is a model of adept adaptation.
These strengths extend to the cast. I was especially taken with Kate Shindle's adult Alison, the fortysomething, self-actualized lesbian who uses her art to better understand why her sexually repressed father Bruce (Robert Petkoff) killed himself shortly after she came out of the closet. Shindle's warm but imposing presence marks her as a perfect narrator who exists inside the scene while simultaneously creating the world of the story. Her forceful alto is pure gold. Susan Moniz is heartbreaking as Alison's long-suffering mother; Carly Gold and especially Abby Corrigan strongly convey Alison's personal development as a child and a teenager, respectively.
If I have one quibble with the musical in general, it's that it doesn't delve deep enough into Bruce's psychology. A gay man born and raised in a culture that taught him to suppress his desires for the sake of conformity, Bruce spends much of his adult life buckling under the pressure of what is expected of him. He acts out by having affairs, sometimes with underage boys. His pattern of destructive behavior continues right up to his suicide. Yet Bruce too often comes across as a leering, creepy old man rather than someone locked in a spiral of self-hatred. This is a shame, because Petkoff's performance is often superb. He plays Bruce as a truly troubled soul rather than a ruthless charmer, and you can really see how much this man hurt himself, his wife, and his children.
Even with these reservations, Fun Home is highly recommended. It is smart, funny, confounding, difficult, and often beautifuljust like life. It is worth seeking out when it comes to your city, even if you're as averse to national tours as I am.
The Philadelphia engagement of Fun Home continues through Sunday, June 18, 2017, at The Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets for this engagement can be purchased at www.kimmelcenter.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.funhomebroadway.com.