WASHINGTON — It won five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best New Musical.
“It’s about as close to a masterpiece as I’ve ever been in,” actress Kate Shindle told WTOP. “There have been two I thought were equally good. I did ‘Cabaret’ on Broadway and I did ‘Gypsy’ once, and both of those, in terms of construction … evoked the same feelings in me. … I think [‘Fun Home’] is one of the great ones. I think, in hindsight, we will look at this and say, ‘That was one of the big ones.'”
Adapted by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music), “Fun Home” is based on the 2006 graphic memoir by acclaimed American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The story is presented through three stages of her life: the childhood of Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino), the confusing college years of Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan), and the nostalgic narration of Adult Alison (Kate Shindle).
“We see Adult Alison, who’s 43, looking back at her life and her childhood and then her first year in college with an eye toward writing this book,” Shindle said. “During the process of trying to find the right images and the right captions, she gets pulled into her memories in a way that she didn’t expect.”
Beyond her memories of growing up in the family-run funeral home, hence the title “Fun Home,” the story’s core follows Alison’s autobiographical discovery of her sexual orientation, juxtaposed against the impending death of her father, a closeted gay man who was believed to have committed suicide.
“[She’s] trying to deal with her father as a human being … which many of us go through in our 20s and 30s, but when your dad died when you were 19, you don’t always get that,” Shindle said. “Also, [she’s] trying to solve a bit of a mystery. Bruce Bechdel died when Alison was a freshman in college. The family thinks it was a suicide, but nobody knows for sure. She’s collecting pieces of information … to try to put together what happened to her dad and why he died so young, at the same age she is now.”
With such heavy themes at play, “Fun Home” is undoubtedly an emotional, even political, experience.
“Obviously there are really strong LGBT themes in our show,” Shindle said. “Alison is a very out and comfortable-with-it lesbian, and her father was a gay man who was not out or comfortable and was kind of sneaking around in this small town in Pennsylvania. There is a lot to be said about being able to recognize and live your own identity — and the fact that bad things can happen if you don’t.”
Still, don’t go in dreading something depressingly serious; “Fun Home” is consistently, wildly and unexpectedly funny. Case in point: the hilarious dark-comedy number “Come to the Fun Home,” as the three Bechdel kids — Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino), brother Christian (Pierson Salvador) and brother John (Lennon Nate Hammond) — dance atop a casket, waving funeral procession flags.
“There’s a lot of lightness because kids find lightness,” Shindle said. “They have a musical number that sounds like a Jackson Five song where they’re dancing around for a commercial for the funeral home.”
You’re also guaranteed to laugh at Medium Alison’s number “Changing My Major,” as Abby Corrigan steals the show singing about her obsession with confident lesbian classmate Joan (Karen Eilbacher).
“It’s hard not to like watching ‘Changing My Major,'” Shindle said with a smile. “The scenes in the dorm room are some of my favorites, because they’re so funny. … This is Abby’s first professional job. She just finished high school last year! She’s a freak! She’s really good. I just watch her with awe.”
Even so, the real showstopper is Small Alison belting “Ring of Keys” about her identity epiphany.
“She sees this woman in a diner and goes, ‘Oh, you’re like me with the cropped hair and the jeans and the big ring of keys,’ but she doesn’t know why,” Shindle said. “It’s a really powerful song for Small Alison to sing. You really get to see where it comes from. … I think it’s a really fantastic way for an audience member … to understand how that looks for someone who’s going through it in real time.”
Alison’s epiphany is later assisted by her father Bruce, who sends her books about sexual orientation at college. It’s this role, that of the closeted gay father, that is easily the most difficult in the show. Luckily, it’s nailed by veteran Broadway actor Robert Petkoff (“Anything Goes,” “All the Way”), who remains the haunting, conflicted presence on stage, building to his big song “Edges of the World.”
“It’s hard not to just play that character as a miserable person who has a secret, but Robert finds all these shades of affection for his kids, even when he is frustrated or trying to figure out what to do,” Shindle said. “He has to flirt with young men, then the same actor comes in and he’s pitching him a casket. It’s a real tour-de-force of a role and a performance. I don’t know how I would approach that role if I were him, but I’m glad it’s him because it’s really an accomplishment what he’s doing.”
The unsung hero is Susan Moniz as Alison’s mother Helen, who has to hide her husband’s love affairs.
“I love the song ‘Days and Days’ that the mother sings,” Shindle said. “Susan is so good in our show, but she’s kind of a sleeper. You notice that she’s there, … but the role is varying degrees of thankless up until that point. Then, she just lets it rip with this amazing song that she sings the crap out of.”
As for Shindle, her favorite solo number might just be “Maps.”
“She’s trying to figure out what she knows besides what her dad has taught her,” Shindle said. “The lyric is, ‘What do you know that’s not your dad’s mythology?’ She’s trying to step out of what her dad told her about the world and start with the basics: ‘He was born here, he died here and this is where our house was, so he lived his whole life in this very small circle.’ No wonder he couldn’t get out of it.”
It all culminates with the chill-inducing “Telephone Wire,” as Alison remembers her final car ride with her father while he was alive, pleading for him to say something “at the light, at the light, at the light.”
“[They’re] in the car talking about little things, but not talking about the elephant that’s sitting in the back seat,” Shindle said. “I’ve had a number of people come and say, ‘I did not go through what Alison went through, but I’ve definitely been on that car ride.’ I think everybody has been on that car ride.”
Thus, “Fun Home” is universally powerful, for fans of musicals and even non-fans of musicals.
“It’s a show for people who like musicals and want to see what the next generation of musicals looks like; it’s also for people who aren’t sure they like musicals,” Shindle said. “It’s a tight, well-told story [over] 100 minutes, no intermission. You get on the ride, and by the time the lights come up, it’s over.”
Click here for more information on “Fun Home.” Listen to our full chat with actress Kate Shindle below: