Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test? Contrived by Alison Bechdel, author/illustrator of the autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home, the test rates films based on the criteria of containing at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man.
The musical adaptation of Fun Home, with a gorgeous score by Jeanine Tesoro complimented with captivating book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, I liked a lot better than the book. Plus, Los Angeles gets to be blessed by Sam Gold's original direction, the literal "Golden child" of theatre directors. Fun Home tells the story of Alison Bechdel's childhood in the mid seventies through to her adulthood as a cartoon artist, based primarily around her coming to terms with her sexuality. Her story also delves into her father's secretiveness about his sexuality and how it may have contributed to his suicide. As a big graphic novel reader, at first I was excited to pick the book up, but soon realized that I had a hard time connecting with its tone. I was also craving clarity of the characters' emotions while dealing with the book's conflicts. The drawings are beautiful and the story is a unique one, but it didn't land with me the way I had hoped.
However, as with most musical adaptations, things get a little bit lighter in song. They get a little more emotionally fueled too. From the very fist number, the music swells with warmth, drawing us in to the Bechdels' historic Pennsylvania home. While reading the book, I was upset that I didn't get to live in the mother's emotional trauma and lifestyle paired with what she was facing. But on stage, we get a much deeper look into how this experience impacted her. Helen, played by Susan Moniz, is transformed into this beautiful mother figure, just trying to live through what in her eyes is a nightmare, in order to do the best she can for her family. Also in comparison to the book, I felt like the father was much more deeply humanized on stage. I don't know if he can be classified as an anti-hero, because he has his moments of heroism, even throughout making choices society would look down upon. Regardless, Robert Petkoff nails it. He sounds wonderful, he's convincing and the contrast between the ways he positively and negatively communicates with his children is an incredible visual lesson for the aspiring actor. His closing number was absolutely gorgeous. Both the mother and the father's beauty comes alive on stage in a way that it could not in the graphic novel. It makes sense: the reader's perception of the book is often out of the author's hands and maybe while I was reading it I was just focusing too much on the darkness. But the stage certainly brought the characters into the light.
I had also been concerned about the show's transformation from its thrust stage at Circle in the Square Theater in New York to the proscenium stage at the Ahmanson. But it works. I can see how being up close and personal from different vantage seating points at Circle in the Square would have its intimate benefits for this production, but the show is still effective in its messages. The direction of the play is very simple, but that very much works based on the interactions and relationships within this growing family. I've discussed the mother and father enough, but really this is a star studded cast as a whole. Everyone will make you either laugh or cry. The kids are seriously freak'n cute. Abby Corrigan as Medium Alison was especially engaging (one of my favorite performances) through the awkwardly beautiful transformation from girl to woman in Alison's college days. Her delivery is on point, as she stumbles around her crush, trying to shield every embarrassing attempted communication. She accepts what seems to her a humiliating failure, while the audience witnesses her growth as a human. Corrigan has mastered the awkwardness, as she tries to defend Alison's opinion while realizing how big and small the world is. She has a lovely voice to boot; I greatly enjoyed her performance.
After bows, my companion for the evening, a resident LA actor, told me that she was craving more about the how the story impacted Bechdel brothers. I agreed with her, but knowing that was not a central focus of the book, it had not come to mind during the show. Plus, this isn't their story, it's Alison's story. My partner was as obsessed with the kids as I was, and notably hailed Karen Eilbacher's incredibly natural portrayal of Joan.
What does the play make me want to change about myself? It may seem broad, but the biggest personal connection to this show for me was the family dynamic. The way the kids bonded together, the way each parent communicated with the kids, the way the parents communicated with each other. It sounds simple, but the dramatization of those basic relationships really hit home for me. I've seen my parents talk to each other this way. My brother and sister and I have imagined ourselves out of all kinds of situations. I've also been in the room with a family member who wanted to tell me something, but felt they couldn't even though we're family and we're supposed to. I've sat on both sides of the table in that situation. Fun Home makes me want to know more about people in my family. It makes we want to talk to my brother more. It makes me want to be a better listener. A lot of plays make we want to be a better listener. I probably need to be a better listener.
So, does the musical Fun Home pass the Bechdel test? In my opinion, it passes by a hairline fracture. Two women speak to each other alone discussing their own sexuality, however it is not long before the father is brought into the conversation. Which obviously makes a ton of sense based on the premise. With a play grounded in the family dynamic that highlights the father figure as one of the most central characters, it's difficult to steer clear of the male influence. Which is great. The story works and we need him. He made Alison who she is today and her love for him is memorialized by this book and musical.
Fun Home runs at the Ahmanson Theatre at Music Center through April 1. Winner of Best Musical at the 2015 Tony Awards, if you're in the mood for some 70s flair and unconventional family fun, check this one out.