REVIEW: ‘Fun Home’ amusement comes with an emotional price

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I’m not big into musicals.

Never one for excess emotion, slow-cooked drama is much more my kinda thing. I’ll take “The Crucible” over “Hairspray” any day.

So I was somewhat skeptical about attending the opening night of “Fun Home,” the show that many theatergoers have earmarked as one of the newest, freshest and supposedly “bestest” musicals to spin out of New York this decade.

But, after absorbing the show —  mere days after seeing another “oh-my-gosh-you-gotta-see-it” musical on the silver screen featuring a notable redhead and her Canadian counterpart — I think I just might be a musical guy.

If “La La Land” is the film for people who “hate” musicals, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ current run of “Fun Home” just might be the stage version. It’s stupendous.

Directed by Sam Gold, this touring production of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s (of Bechdel Test and “Dykes to Watch Out For” fame) life in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, is a monumental achievement. Not only does it inject relevance into the somewhat tired vehicle of the Broadway musical, it oh-so expertly welcomes viewers into the tragically comedic (it’s based on a so-called “tragicomic,” after all) life and mind of one of our more razor-edged illustrators. Oh, and it’s chock-full of more young talent than is truly digestible in a single-act show. (The production runs without an intermission.)

Don’t be fooled by the title — though certainly buoyant at times, this is by no means an entirely happy-go-lucky affair. The denouement is revealed early on: Alison’s father is going to commit suicide by stepping in front of a truck on a state highway just a few months after Alison — played by three different superb actresses at three very different ages in her life — becomes a college freshman (and an out-and-proud lesbian). The action careens toward that tragic conclusion with the older version of Alison prodding her own memories for some clue as to why her father’s life ended — and her’s turned out — the way it did. Sometimes measured and sometimes saucy, these inquiries spawn moments that are at the same time knee-slappers, chin-rubbers and eye-wipers.

The cherry bomb that keeps the whole thing smoking is that Alison’s father, Bruce, played in this incarnation by DCPA favorite Robert Petkoff, is not only a family man who daylights as a high school English teacher and moonlights as a mortician, he also frequently lures young men to fool around with him. So there’s that, which somehow simultaneously dovetails and juxtaposes Alison’s candid look at her own self-discovery. And then there’s her broken mother, Helen, commanded by Susan Moniz. And her brothers, and the music and the choreography – and on and on. Together it’s an exquisite blend of some saccharine songs, stiff truths and brilliant acting.

Though tremendous kudos should be poured upon one of the best books to come out of Broadway this decade, compliments of Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, a virtuoso cast commands the show.

Based on Petkoff’s version of the tormented and fiery Bruce, a convincing argument could be made for all future Bruces to take a stab at Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at some point in their careers. Michael Cerveris, who played Bruce in the wildly acclaimed take on “Fun Home” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York two years ago, portrayed the feisty barber of Fleet Street himself in a mid-2000s revival. Petkoff was a searing Sweeney Todd at the DCPA last spring; something about tortured love whisked with a fancy for death translates exquisitely.

The trinity of Kate Shindle (the 43-year-old version of Alison, who doubles as the narrator), Abby Corrigan, the protagonist at 19 years old, and Alessandra Baldacchino, Alison at age 10, is nothing short of sublime. The three are wildly effective at blending their individual talents to form a singular personality that is torn, tender and unsparingly relatable.

My personal vote for strongest Alison goes to Corrigan as the doe-eyed Oberlin College student who quickly embraces her sexuality — in her underwear — while her vixen of a newfound girlfriend, Joan (Karen Eilbacher), snoozes on the bed in her dorm room. Her zippy delivery snaps with nerve and conviction.

But Shindle, a former Miss America, and Baldacchino cannot be ignored, the former for her punchy honesty and the latter for her wildly advanced understanding of the shows many nuances. Seriously, at 10 years old — er, 10-and-a-half as she precociously declared in a post-performance talk back — Baldacchino appears to possess more self-awareness than most people develop by the time they hit their golden years. She’s phenomenal.

Alison’s brothers, Christian (Pierson Salvador) and John (Lennon Nate Hammond), appropriately add doses of sugary endearment, too. To no surprise, their prevailing moments come during the fundamentally Jackson 5-esque “Come to the Fun Home,” nailing choreographer Danny Mefford’s moves with ample aplomb. Appropriately campy 70s attire, courtesy of scenic and costumer designer David Zinn, amplifies their presence and performance.

If you’re going to spring for a night at the Denver Center this year, make sure it’s before Jan. 22 and make sure it’s “Fun Home.” This perfectly-fried sliver of 21st century Americana simply cannot be missed.

And, yeah, I’m officially a musical guy now.

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“Fun Home”

Show times vary. Performances are daily through Jan. 22, except for Jan. 16. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, The Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1101 13th St., Denver. Tickets start at $30. Call 800-641-1222 or visit denvercenter.org for more information.