“When she says that, some of the audience laughs,” says Petkoff, who plays Bruce, the father Alison speaks of. “But there are people in the audience who are like, ‘What?! I saw kids dancing on the poster — this doesn’t seem to be that story!’ ”
Based on Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, the musical — which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2015 and is stopping at the National Theatre during a nationwide tour — fleshes out her search to understand her father by examining her childhood memories. An adult Alison (Shindle) plays a sort of Greek chorus as she watches 9-year-old Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) and 19-year-old Alison (Abby Corrigan) play with her siblings and fall in love with a fellow college student, respectively.
Throughout the show, adapted by composer Jeanine Tesori and book writer/lyricist Lisa Kron, Alison ponders whether her triumphant coming out had anything to do with her tortured, closeted father’s suicide.
By announcing the father’s untimely end so early in the show, Petkoff says, “We don’t have to play a mystery game with the audience. We just let her say, ‘This is what happened. Now we’re trying to figure out why.’ As these memories come to her throughout the show, they get more intricate, they get deeper.”
The deepening of Alison’s memories is represented in the set design. Her childhood home is at first drawn with a few set pieces against a simple brick wall, but in a late scene in which Alison returns from college, the home is represented in full detail: It’s as though Alison (like the audience) is seeing her home for the first time all over again.
When “Fun Home” was staged in the round on Broadway, set designer David Zinn created that effect with mechanical lifts that brought the furniture up from beneath the stage. Once the show hit the road, Zinn had to devise a dramatic trick that would work on more traditional stages. Zinn insists the moment is best seen in person, but just know, “It’s where we’ve put our money and scenery energy for the audience,” he says.
It’s really the only visually arresting moment in the show — and that’s intentional. “There aren’t a lot of flashes and tricks to get in the way of your relationships with these characters,” Zinn says. “I think we have still maintained a sense of intimacy with the story.”
It appears to have worked: The show has been on the road for six months, and even though some audiences have walked in expecting something purely bubbly and lighthearted, Petkoff says he always sees at least a few folks wiping away tears at curtain call.
“The people who are connecting with it, whether they’re in Detroit or Cleveland or Las Vegas or Denver, they all come to us and say the same thing: ‘I saw my family there,’ ” Petkoff says. “Or the one I get the most: ‘I gotta go call my dad.’ ”
More stuff to do this weekend: