June 7 2017 03:20 PM

‘Fun Home’ translates trauma into universal story

If you’ve wondered how to turn painful childhood memories into a Tony Award winning Broadway musical, “Fun Home” is a good example of where to start.

Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lansing native Lisa Kron, “Fun Home” is an intimate, honest, funny and heartbreaking autobiographical musical about personal identity and the power of memories. And although the protagonist is a lesbian woman, only the most literal minded will be unable to identify with the universal experiences in this story.

“Fun Home” is part coming-of-age and sexual awakening story and part mystery, as Alison tries to understand her own father. Bechdel is played by three actors at different ages; Small Alison (Carly Gold) who is Bechdel around age 10, Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) who is Bechdel in her first year in college, and Adult Alison (Amanda Naughton). Robert Petkoff plays Bechdel’s enigmatic father, Bruce. As Adult Alison explains, “(Bruce) was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

The problem is that neither Small Alison nor Medium Alison know about Bruce’s secret identity nor why he tends to connect more with ornate furniture than his own children. So the show, with Adult Alison as narrator, jumps through time, re-examining her memories and conversations with her father and mother.

As Bruce, Petkoff is charming and controlling, charismatic and terrifying all at the same time. He seamlessly shifts from a person who sees his children as props in the staging of his perfectly managed house to an empathetic human being who instantly connects with others. It’s no wonder that Bechdel spent an entire novel trying to understand him, because he is a fascinating mystery — and Petkoff turns that mystery into flesh.

The three Alisons are both identical and unique at the same time. More important, each actor gets at least one song to shine. For Gold as Small Alison, the Motown-influenced “Come to the Fun Home” steals the first act. Gold shares sharp singing and dancing duties with Henry Boshart and Luké Barbato Smith as her two brothers.

Corrigan, as Medium Alison, expresses her sexual awakening on “Changing My Major.” Finally, Naughton kills the heartbreaking ballad “Telephone Wire” near the end of the show, where she is unable to connect with her father in their final car ride together.

In the show’s most important supporting role, Alison’s mother, Helen (Susan Moniz), is the one other person who knows Bruce’s secrets. In one scene, Helen plays the piano in the living room next to the children to cover the sounds Bruce seducing a young man in the other room. Moniz’s face is a chiseled mask barely hiding Helen’s pain and misery.

She finally breaks down to Alison on her final song, “Days and Days,” revealing how she molded herself to please her husband over herself.

Supporting the acting and singing, David Zinn’s beautiful set and costume design start with a bare, brick wall before transitioning into the elaborately decorated interior of the house near the end. Ben Stanton’s lighting design uses isolated spots to make the most of the stage, but they are especially effective projecting prison bar-like grid lines in a New York City scene.

Finally, sound designer Kai Harada ensures all of the lyrics are clear throughout.

As an adaptation, the musical uses the content in the graphic novel as a jumping off point instead of recreating the story frame by frame. The musical has breath and rhythm. It transposes the awkward scenes and silences from the page into real awkward silences that hang in the air and beg to be broken.

“Fun Home” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday,

June 7-Thursday, June 8; 8 p.m. Friday, June 9; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Saturday, June 10; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 11 Tickets start at $41/$28 students Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com