Touching musical brings ‘Fun Home’ to the Fisher

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Producer Barbara Whitman initially thought she was “too busy” to work on the biographical musical “Fun Home” when her producing partners brought her the script. But it didn’t take long to change her mind.

“I read it and I said, ‘It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. I should say no, but I can’t say no,’ ” she says. “So I said yes, and it was the smartest move I ever made.”

That may actually be an understatement. Whitman’s Broadway production of the show went on to collect five Tony Awards in 2015. Her national tour of the show began last month and will stop at the Fisher Theatre Nov. 29-Dec. 11.

But almost a decade before the Tonys, “Fun Home” collected the comic-book industry’s highest honor — an Eisner Award — in its original format as an autobiographical graphic novel. The best-selling book is the poignant, darkly funny tale of author Alison Bechdel’s struggle to reconcile the suicide of her father, a closeted gay man, with her own identity as a lesbian.

Actor Robert Petkoff plays Alison Bechdel’s father, Bruce Bechdel, in the touring production. The original novel was his first experience with the story and he says he was amazed at how “literate” the book was.

“She’s so brutal and honest in the book, both about her father and her family and herself,” Petkoff says. “There’s something to be respected about someone who’s willing to share that much in the search for truth.”

The play employs three actors to portray Alison Bechdel as a 10-year-old growing up in her family’s funeral home, or “fun home,” as a conflicted young college student and as an adult trying to piece her life’s story together. Perhaps the most unexpected twist in bringing this story to the stage is the addition of musical numbers. But Petkoff says the music helps to condense and amplify Bechdel’s story while preserving its structure and main beats.

“It feels to me like a play with music,” he says. “It’s going to touch people and move people in ways that you don’t always expect to be by a musical.”

Petkoff says he found a particular challenge in portraying Bruce Bechdel, whose life had a tragic arc Petkoff describes as Shakespearean. But in re-creating the Bechdel family’s very specific lives and experiences, Whitman says the cast touches on far more universal themes.

“There are so many elements (of the story) that everybody goes through growing up,” she says. “You’ve got figuring out who you are in the world and what you want to do, going to college and becoming an adult and looking back on your childhood and your parents ... Everyone finds their own way into the story, even if their life has not been the same as Alison’s.”

Whitman says “Fun Home” has taken on even greater significance since this year’s highly contentious presidential election finally came to its bitter end.

“We feel it’s even more important than it was two weeks ago,” she says. “I’m a big believer in getting these stories out there so that people can say, ‘People are just people.’ I think that’s what ‘Fun Home’ is: love, tolerance, acceptance. I think you can never say that too often, but especially now it’s wonderful that we’re able to do that for the next year.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

‘Fun Home’

Nov. 29-Dec. 11

8 p.m. Tue.-Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

Fisher Theatre

3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit

Tickets $39-$125

(313) 872-1000