photo by Joan Marcus
Alessandra Baldacchino as Small Alison and Robert Petkoff as Bruce in Fun Home
Through Sunday, Oct. 30
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
The great difficulty of taking in an adaptation of a work you already love is that, inevitably, the adaptation finds a way to let you down. The things you love aren’t always represented the way you wanted; the fine details to which you cling don’t always make the cut from the original to its offspring.
I found myself facing this conundrum at Tuesday night’s presentation of Fun Home
, the Broadway-smashing adaptation of Alison Bechdel
’s stirring 2006 graphic novel memoir of the same name. The story unravels Bechdel’s coming to terms with herself as a lesbian, while examining her thorny relationship with her father. It wasn’t until Bechdel was a young adult that she learned of her father’s history of secret affairs with men, some of them minors.
A large part of what makes the book so gorgeous is that it exists almost entirely in gray areas, buoyed by nuance and subtle irony that Bechdel conveys in the juxtaposition of text and pictures. Musicals, however, are not the best places to look for subtleties and precise, muted exposition. But once you get past that difference, the touring musical of Fun Home
, which won five Tony Awards, is a strong production that elegantly explores complicated ideas of identity.
Durham is the tour’s second stop, with a tight run through Sunday. The nine-member cast—three of whom play different iterations of Bechdel—weaves together effortlessly. The oldest Alison (Kate Shindle, a startling likeness to the real-life Bechdel) acts as an outside narrator, framing the story and guiding the audience through her life. As Medium Alison, Abby Corrigan gracefully relays the glee and terror that accompany self-discovery, while Alessandra Baldacchino’s Small Alison is whip-smart.
In the book, Bechdel’s father is a cold and often distant figure whose tender moments often arrive unexpectedly; in the musical, he’s the opposite. He’s presented as mostly warm and charming, albeit with a stern streak that flares up and turns nasty from time to time. Robert Petkoff plays the role well as it’s written, but again, that writing misses much of what makes the character compelling.
If the characterizations sometimes seem flatter than in the book, the set designs are consistently spot-on. One changeover late in the show is particularly stunning, where sketch-like scenery yields to a grandiose, fully realized interior of the funeral home where Bechdel grew up. It looked as if it had been lifted directly from her pages. Within that scenery, Helen (Susan Moniz) delivers one of the production’s most stirring songs, “Days and Days,” and gets a much more emotional moment to shine than Bechdel offers her in the book (though she would get her turn in Fun Home
’s sequel, Are You My Mother?
Overall, Fun Home
makes a beautiful, straightforward coming-of-age tale out of more complexly emotional literature, while staying far away from ham-handed revelations or overwrought tripe. Those who also hold the book a little too close to their hearts might be tempted to pick it apart—better to let go and enjoy Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's thoughtful reinterpretation on its own merits instead.