Musicals can amuse us and romance us and take us to magical places.
The Tony-winning “Fun Home,” on the other hand, goes directly for that lump in the throat that tells us we’re being moved in exciting and unexpected ways. It’s an emotional workout that leaves audiences teetering between a sigh and a sob.
Oh, yes, it also leaves them cheering wildly, at least if the crowd that witnessed the National Tour of the show Tuesday at the Kauffman Center is any indication.
Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name, this musical (book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori) limns Bechdel’s troubled relationship with her father. Early on, the 43-year-old Alison (Kate Shindle) — who shares the stage with two younger versions of herself — says of her dad that “he was gay, and I was gay ... and he killed himself.”
That may sound heavy — and it is — but “Fun Home” is also resolutely life-affirming.
Basically, this is a memory play with the grown Alison pondering her past and parents.
We also have a 10-year-old version of Alison (Carly Gold, so tomboyishly adorable you want to take her home) and the college-Alison (Abby Corrigan, the very picture of fumbling adolescence).
Their father, Bruce (an excellent Robert Petkoff), teaches high school English, restores old houses and antiques, and runs the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home, known to Small Alison and her two siblings as the “Fun Home.”
Bruce is a demanding sort, an artistic snob who looks down on cartooning and popular TV shows and attempts to guide his daughter, sometimes cruelly, to accept his aesthetic standards. Bruce has been in the closet so long that his frustrations are coming out in destructive ways.
Mother Helen (Susan Moniz) endures her husband’s obsessions and romantic indifference, though not without considerable pain.
This is not to say there aren’t some moments of pure joy here. One of the evening’s show-stoppers is “Come to the Fun Home,” an unfettered disco number the Bechdel kids (Alison’s bothers are played by Luke Barbato Smith and Henry Boshart) have cooked up as a TV advertisement for the mortuary:
“Our caskets are satin-lined / And we got so many models
guaranteed to blow your mind / You know our mourners
so satisfied / They like, they like, they like our formaldehyde”
And Middle Alison delivers one of the greatest songs ever about first love (well, actually, first sex) in “I’m Changing My Major (to Joan),” sung to the coed sleeping in her dorm bed. The gawky giddiness of it all is enough to make you swoon.
Small Alison also has a jawdroppingly touching moment when she sings “Ring of Keys,” about encountering a mannish woman in a diner and realizing that she’s drawn to this unconventional individual:
“Your swagger and your bearing / and the just right clothes you’re wearing / your short hair and your dungarees and your lace-up boots / and your keys, oh, your ring of keys... / Why am I the only one who sees / you’re beautiful?”
Tesori’s songs have a Sondheim-ish feel with more emphasis on words and rhythms than melodies, yet at certain times they are absolutely heartbreaking in their mix of wordplay and melancholy.
This touring production was directed by Sam Gold, who won a Tony for directing the Broadway edition, and this “Fun Home” show seems to have lost nothing in the transition to road show.
It’s a reminder of just how wonderful a thing musical theater can be.
“Fun Home” continues through Sunday, June 4, in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. See theaterleague.com/kansascity or call 816-421-7500.