Sometimes, the touring version of a Broadway success arrives in town wearing a scarlet M — for meh. The suspicion that the technical elements won’t be up to par, or the actors sufficiently experienced, or the production adequately rested, can plant doubts in the minds of ticket buyers about getting the best that a given show can offer.
Well, “Fun Home” fans-in-the-making, cast skepticism aside. The traveling incarnation of the Tony-winning musical that occupies the National Theatre for the next 3½ weeks is not only a first-rate representation of the work of composer Jeanine Tesori and book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron. It also in some significant ways constitutes a more powerful evening than was built at off-Broadway’s Public Theater in 2013 and transferred to Broadway for an 18-month run.
The show itself, based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel and directed on the road as in New York by Sam Gold, is bracingly honest, touchingly wise and bittersweetly funny. While it traverses some sensitive terrain — the Pennsylvania household of a troubled man who lived and died a puzzle to a daughter struggling with her own identity — the musical is by no stretch a downer. Instead, it is a joyful reckoning with painful things.
Gold has had designer David Zinn augment the Broadway set, and restaged to superior effect a few pivotal sequences of the one-act musical, which had its official Washington opening Wednesday night. And he has assembled a cast of exemplary caliber, so good it stands up easily to the quality of the original. The standouts include all of the principals, with special medals of accomplishment due to Abby Corrigan, who plays Alison at college age and is — mark my words — a budding star, and to Karen Eilbacher, who portrays Joan, the Oberlin classmate who guides Alison over the threshold of sexual awakening.
Corrigan’s rendition of one of the evening’s peak musical moments, the endearing “Changing My Major,” brings to the fore all of the melodic vitality of Tesori’s compositions and the offbeat wit of Kron’s lyrics: “I’m changing my major to Joan,” Corrigan sings, with Eilbacher as the self-possessed girlfriend asleep under the dorm room bed covers. “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan/ With a minor in kissing Joan.”
“Fun Home” is a musical about initiations and discoveries, orbiting around the sorrow that adheres to the adult Alison (a terrific Kate Shindle) as she reflects on the secret life and ghastly suicide of her father, Bruce (Robert Petkoff, in an invigorating, unsentimental performance). The dad, a closeted gay English teacher who cruises bars, tries to seduce students and, seemingly inexplicably, retains the loyalty of his wife, Helen (Susan Moniz, also excellent), is such an enigma that it takes three Alisons to retrace his erratic steps. Shindle is identified as Alison, Corrigan as Medium Alison and the equally effective Alessandra Baldacchino as Small Alison, who wants to have her father close and can’t fathom the wall of anger he builds to keep her and the rest of the family at arm’s length.
As it cycles through the interludes of Medium Alison at school and Small Alison at home, the story of “Fun Home” might initially seem a bit random. It’s actually all quite deliberately and solidly plotted, a portrait of an artist — Alison is a cartoonist — working through the twisting path of memory to understand how her identity converged with and diverged from her father’s. Slowly, the musical unpacks its tragic truth, that her father was born into a darker age, when the opportunities for sexual self-expression that liberate Alison were not available.
Among the memorable songs, accompanied by a seven-person onstage orchestra conducted by Micah Young, are those charting turning points in Alison’s coming to terms with her attraction to women.
The ebullient “Ring of Keys,” for example, makes Small Alison’s recognition of that attraction, in an ordinary moment in a diner, warmly concrete. A masculine woman enters, and the girl is smitten by “Your swagger and your bearing/ And the just-right clothes you’re wearing/ Your short hair and your dungarees/ And your lace-up boots.” It’s the poetry of everyday surprise.
Some other numbers offer comic relief from the show’s ruminative atmosphere, among them the sweet pop ditty “Come to the Fun Home,” set in the showroom of the family business, the funeral parlor that Bruce has inherited. One of the pleasures of “Fun Home” is the way it manages to shift seamlessly to a child’s perspective and present as normal some of the more eccentric aspects of Alison’s upbringing. Performed by Alessandra with the two other adorable actors who play Alison’s brothers, Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond, “Come to the Fun Home” is their risible enactment of a pretend TV spot for the Bechdel Funeral Home.
“We got Kleenex and your choice of psalm,” they sing. “Think of Bechdel when you need to embalm!”
Think of Bechdel, too, when you want to experience the buoyant, poignant directions that musical theater is taking.
Fun Home, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. Directed by Sam Gold. Sets and costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Kai Harada; orchestrations, John Clancy; music direction, Micah Young; choreography, Danny Mefford. With Robert Hager. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Tickets, $48-$98. Through May 13 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Visit thenationaldc.org or call 202-628-6161.