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‘Fun Home’ is one of the most emotionally powerful and resonant musicals ever written

Kate Shindle as 'Alison' in Fun Home. (Joan Marcus)

“Fun Home,” the new hit Broadway musical that opened Thursday night at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, is a great dramatic work of art.

Rich, complex, and heartbreaking, this 2015 Tony winner (for Best Musical) takes the most unlikely of subjects — a tragic family memoir — and turns it into the most unlikely of musicals – a soaring and searing tribute to dysfunctional families everywhere.

“Fun Home is based on a popular graphic novel/memoir penned by Alison Bechdel about the very unusual circumstances of her childhood in rural Pennsylvania. Not only was she raised in a funeral home (hence the show’s title), which might be unusual enough, but more significantly her father was secretly gay. In the musical, a grown-up Alison looks back on her childhood to try to make sense of her family, her father, and herself.

Early in the play, the adult Alison quite baldly and bluntly addresses the salient points of her relationship with her dad.

“My dad and I both grew up in the same Pennsylvania town. And he was gay and I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

It’s quite remarkable that, despite the rather extreme particularities of the Bechdel household, the family dynamics on display are utterly recognizable to anyone with a family.

It proves once again the adage the universal is in the particular. The father’s excessive criticism of his kids, for instance, or the mother’s distracted dismissal of them ring true to life, regardless of whether the dad is closeted or not, or the mom is in denial.

And all parents, of necessity, have secrets they keep from their children and as the kids grow up more and more of those secrets get exposed. And the relationships between parents and children remain complicated.

“My Dad and I were exactly alike … my Dad and I were nothing alike.”

Who hasn’t thought that about their parents?

The ingenious structure of “Fun Home” involves three versions of Alison (as a grade-schooler, a college student, and a 40-something cartoonist), versions who intermingle simultaneously on stage. With the value of hindsight, the adult Alison finds herself reliving and re-interpreting her interactions with her parents, especially her dad, in an effort to better understand them and herself.

Alison comes to realize that her Dad’s perfectionism and his obsessive concern with appearances, whether it’s their house which he is constantly restoring or the corpses which he lovingly “restores” to hide all signs of trauma, is emblematic of his efforts to cover-up his sexuality.

The emotional repression within the family is given perfect expression in a heart-wrenching song (Telephone Wire) in which Alison and her Dad have the opportunity to discuss their own sexuality face to face but can’t quite bring themselves to do it.

Adding to the poignancy is the fact this was to be the very last conversation Alison ever had with her Dad.

The musical, mind you, is not all soul-baring angst. The play mercifully has a number of flat-out comic scenes including a hilariously human song about Alison’s feelings following her first sexual encounter.

But the show’s humor is not its raison-d’etre. The essence of “Fun Home” is the very humanistic and tricky project of trying to figure out one’s place in the world — and that often starts with understanding one’s parents. (Imagine how your kids will eventually interpret your lives or how you interpret your own parents’ lives now). That can be a frightening prospect but it’s also a breathtaking undertaking.

“Fun Home” is one of the most emotionally powerful and resonant musicals ever written.

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