Songs, shadow and sharp pangs, with a passel of awards4/5/2017
Robert Petkoff doesn’t worry about bringing what might be the weirdest musical ever made to Des Moines. He recalls that when he toured with “Spamalot,” a few years back, he found the Civic Center audience was “really on the ball.”
A New York native who’s played on Broadway and in London, Petkoff loved Des Moines. He has no worries about how locals will respond to “Fun Home.” The story has its disturbing aspects, chief among them Petkoff ’s character. This father of three, a successful professional, lived deep in the closet. Actually he liked teenage boys. Both sides of the man’s life come to light during the show, as does his daughter’s preference for women.
Unlikely material for a hit musical, you say? Yet since “Fun Home” opened Off Broadway in 2013, it’s won heaps of praise (“a blazingly original heartbreaker”) and a passel of awards. The writers, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, never shrank from the challenges of their source material, a graphic novel from 2006. Itself a prizewinner, the book drifts back and forth over the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of its author, Alison Bechdel.
Long out of the closet herself, free of the contradictions that bedeviled her father, Bechdel called her picture-book memoir a “Tragicomic.” It sifts through the complex residue of her upbringing, and the stage adaptation finds ways to bring that same shifting sediment to life.
“The effects we get from our set, lighting, and sound — it’s magical, really,” declares Petkoff.
Rather than using blackouts and wholesale set-changes, he explains that “Fun Home” keeps its light and shade alternating, dappled, while moving furniture off and on what’s otherwise a nearly bare stage.
“Something will come in sharply for a while,” he goes on, “and then fade out, just the way memories do.”
The drama opens with one figure onstage, the grown-up Alison — played by former Miss America Kate Shindle, showing remarkable range. Then, however, some reminder will trigger the arrival of either “Small Alison,” about 10 years old, or “Middle Alison,” a college freshman just discovering her sexuality.
“The drama’s in constant flow,” says Petkoff, “without an intermission.”
Out of that flux, songs erupt with terrific intensity. The writers, gushes Petkoff, “captured the exotic power of moments that come rushing back.” The title song has a special, poignant ambiguity, since the children pull “fun home” out of their Dad’s actual business: a funeral home. As for “Changing My Major,” Medium Alison’s love song following her seduction by classmate Joan, according to Petkoff it “touches everyone straight or gay.”
Better yet, he adds, “the girl we’ve got in that role is the exact age of her character.” In audition, the company discovered Abby Corrigan, a blue-chip talent straight out of high school.
“It adds to the intimacy,” Petkoff concludes. “It helps us stay true to the contradictory impulses of the human heart.”
Overheard in the Lobby: Two city companies, StageWest and Repertory Theater of Iowa, have combined as the Iowa Stage Theater Company, which plans on seven productions a year. ♦