Dallas — Occasionally—every decade or so—a masterpiece of literary narrative successfully morphs into a Broadway musical: witness Man of La Mancha, Les Misérables, Candide, Big River, or, lowering the bar for “literary masterpiece” a little, Show Boat and South Pacific. Likewise, sometimes a comic strip makes its way to a decent run on the Great White Way (and subsequent touring and revival), as in Annie, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and, reaching back half a century, Li’l Abner.
The latest addition to both of those lists, the musical adaptation by playwright-lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, ran for a healthy 16 months on Broadway during 2015-16, won a Tony for Best Musical, Best Book for a musical, and Best Score. It finally arrived, in its touring production, in Dallas this week at the Winspear Opera House on the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series.
Yes, Bechdel’s original work is a masterpiece, innovative yet anchored securely in the literary tradition, and destined for a place in the canon both for its innovation and profundity. Like any literary masterpiece, it expands the personal into the universal: young Alison’s complex relationship and her hard-won self-realization of lesbian sexuality parallels the cultural and sexual evolution concurrent in the 1970s and 1980s across America and Europe. Her father’s burdened and closeted homosexuality, expressed through his compulsive personality disorder, verbal abuse of family members, and criminal involvement with underage boys, reflects the other side of that coin as experienced by homosexuals of the generation preceding Alison’s.
Even for families in which sexual identity is not an issue, the struggle to present a respectable façade in the face of family dysfunction is, of course, practically a national epidemic in the United States, mirrored on a larger scale in our political life, making Fun Home, in both of its manifestations, a profound distillation of our culture. On top of all that, along with strikingly complex and believable character development, the original book provides, as a bonus, a gold mine of hundreds of meaningful literary allusions, ranging from Anna Karenina to the Icarus myth to The Wind in the Willows.
So, what comprises success for a musical adaptation of literary masterpiece? Certainly not comprehensiveness. Whether dealing with Don Quixote or Peanuts, the script and music of a musical adaptation must aim for the essence, grabbing only a small percentage of the details of the source, often sacrificing what might be regarded as essential in the interest of concentrating major themes and ideas into somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 minutes.
The musical Fun Home focuses, as does the book, on the stumbling but determined and ultimately victorious blossoming of young Alison, painfully mirrored in her father’s tragic descent into self-destruction. Playwright Kron gives us three versions of Alison: the boundlessly energetic, creative, and curious youngster, played by Carly Gold with appropriate innocent energy and well-projected pre-adolescent soprano voice; the college-aged Alison, a role to which Abby Corrigan brings a high, light voice and a meaningful quasi-post-adolescent awkwardness; and the grownup Alison, played in this production with a knowing presence and a rich, mature contralto by Kate Shindle.
The grownup Alison observes throughout, and steps into the story line only near the end for a final, quietly desperate attempt to find a deeper relationship with her father. Equally impressive as the three Alisons, Robert Petkoff creates in Bruce, Alison’s father, the tension of a man torn between his sexual identity on one hand and small town respectability as a funeral director and English teacher on the other. Vocally, Petkoff neatly nails the high notes composer Tesori hands him at key moments. Susan Moniz owns the most strikingly beautiful voice among the principals, and creates empathy for a woman forced into a position of cold acceptance. Robert Hager handsomely portrays multiple roles of various of Bruce’s sexual partners, with the cool presence of a masculine man who doesn’t mind being seduced by another man; Victoria Janicki is college-aged Alison’s first girlfriend. All of these characters move smoothly and realistically cross the decades under director Sam Gold.
The interweaving passage, back and forth across years of family life—a strategy borrowed from Bechdel’s original text—revolves visually, in designer David Zinn’s sets, around an ornate Victorian couch, representing both Bruce Bechdel’s obsession with historical design and the family’s complex, anachronistic self-image.
Tesori’s score represents the best and most up-to-date Broadway tradition, with a small, onstage orchestra. Tesori knows her way around clean counterpoint and resonant harmonies, meaningful recurring motifs (including a short, oft-repeated eight-note snippet), and easy-on-the-ear lyricism. The upbeat title song “Come to the Fun Home,” in which young Alison and her two brothers pretend to produce a jolly advertisement for the family funeral home, is the most memorable number in the show; though on the surface it slightly jars with the plotline, it epitomizes the theme of the resilience and natural joy of children in the face of a grim family life—and actually represents a real-life survival strategy Alison and her siblings employed in the midst of life with an abusive father who ran a funeral home. The traditional romantic waltz, once a requirement for any Broadway score, reemerges in the form of the dizzying swirl of the lesbian love song “I’m Changing my Major”; another musical and dramatic high point arrives with “Helen’s Etude,” in which Helen quietly, desperately practice the piano while refusing to notice that Bruce is seducing a young man in another part of the house. In terms of lyrical innovation, the sweetly innocent but instinctively wise “Ring of Keys” breaks new ground, presenting the young Alison as she sees an “old school butch” and, to herself, admits her admiration and delight that such a person exists.
No Broadway musical can totally capture the power of a literary masterpiece; Kron and Tesori’s adaptation absolutely succeeds in presenting the joy, pain, and sheer humanity of Bechdel’s vision, and does so in with unfailingly entertaining, engaging, sophisticated, and often heart-grabbing style.
» At the Friday, Sept. 15 performance of Fun Home, there will be a Facebook Live Q&A with the cast of Fun Home, from 6 to 6:30 p.m., hosted by B.J. Cleveland.