Coming of age. Coming out. Coming to grips. Three extraordinary actresses breathe life into a young lesbian’s journey from childhood to mid-life in Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir-turned-Tony-winning musical Fun Home, its National Tour now making a brief but thrilling SoCal return to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

Carly Gold plays 10-year-old Small Alison, raised with her two younger male siblings (Luké Barbato Smith as Christian and Henry Boshart as John) in the family-run funeral home that gives the Jeanine Tesori-Lisa Kron musical its title.

Abby Corrigan is Medium Alison, starting off college life with the realization that her childhood penchant for boys’ wear over dresses may be more than mere fashion statement.

And Kate Shindle is forty-three-year-old Alison, who despite a successful career as cartoonist/graphic novelist, finds it increasingly difficult to cope with memories of emotional childhood abuse and a young adulthood whose discoveries were met with quite the opposite of unconditional love.

Under narrator Alison’s ever watchful eye, Kron’s Tony-winning book zigzags between Small and Medium Alison, the former finding herself at near constant loggerheads with a father whose mantra would appear to be “My way or the highway,” the latter coming to the disturbing yet liberating realization that her professed asexuality is nothing but self-delusion … and quickly cured by a kiss.

Meanwhile, 40something patriarch Bruce (Robert Petkoff) struggles to balance marriage and a series of reckless same-sex hookups with, among others, hunky handyman Roy and at least one underage teen (Robert Hager in two of his five cameos) as his long-suffering wife Helen (Susan Moniz) plays piano études rather than face the truth of her marital lie.

If all this sounds more than a tad dark, well, it’s definitely not Hairspray or The Producers, that’s for sure.

Fortunately for audiences who might otherwise overdose on gloom, composer Tesori and lyricist Kron have lightened things up with a couple of bright-and-bouncy musical numbers choreographed with joyous flair by Danny Mefford: “Come To The Fun Home,” featuring the three preteen Bechdels in Jackson Three mode and “Raincoat Of Love,” whose disco moves reimagine Alison’s parents and siblings as the Partridges.

Still, it’s Fun Home’s dramatic solos that provide the 2015 Best Musical Tony winner with its most compelling moments, Tesori and Kron giving all five major players a great big showstopper (including Bruce’s “Edges Of The World” and Helen’s “Days And Days”).

Best of all are the Alisons’ solo showcases. “Ring Of Keys” recalls the moment Small Alison saw future promise in a delivery woman’s butch swagger. “Changing My Major To Joan” is Medium Alison’s declaration of independence from her dysfunctional childhood and devotion to an out-and-proud classmate (Victoria Janicki’s Joan). “Maps” is adult Alison’s reflection on her tormented father’s life and death.

Splitting a single leading role among them, Fun Home’s three female stars are all absolutely mesmerizing under Sam Gold’s nuanced direction.

The enchanting Gold reveals the pluck and heart of a future feminist fighter, giving Dad back as good as she gets. Corrigan’s androgynous beauty and her open-eyed wonder at the self she is discovering are positively captivating. And Shindle gives the adult Alison gravitas, wisdom, and strength, her final car ride with Dad providing Fun Home with its climactic wallop.

Still, it’s Petkoff in the musical’s meatiest part who ends up making the most indelible impression as a man so conflicted between his innate urges and his learned desire to hide them from the world that he lashes out with a passive-aggressive fury that is both horrifying and heartbreaking to those he is supposed to love.

Muniz’s quietly devastated Helen, Janicki’s tough, sexy Joan, and Hager’s quintet of distinct but equally hot young men are all absolutely splendid, and tykes Smith and Boshart’s blend cuteness, spunk, and charm (and some fancy footwork as well).

Scenic designer David Zinn’s expansive set morphs ingeniously from memory-play figurative to here-and-now realistic, and his lighting features both Vegas-ready pizzazz and quiet subtlety. Zinn’s costumes and Rick Caroto’s hair and wig designs define the three stages of Alison as well as other characters’ personalities and lives. Sound designer Kai Harada provides an expert mix of amped vocals and Fun Home’s terrific onstage live band conducted by music director/keyboardist Micah Young.

Chris Fenwick is music supervisor. Shawn Pennington is production stage manager, Geoff Mauss is stage manager, and Heather Englander is assistant stage manager. Michael Camp is production manager.

Casting is by Jim Carnahan, CSA and Jillian Cimini, CSA. Jadyn Schwartz performs Small Alison at certain performances. Amanda Naughton is standby for Helen and Alison and Michael Winther stands by for Bruce. Featured roles are understudied by dance captain Anthony Fortino, Noelle Hogan, and Caroline Murrah.

Like Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next To Normal, Fun Home tackles serious issues with humor and humanity. Not only did it open doors as Broadway’s first musical with a lesbian lead character, its capacity to open hearts and minds make its one-week Segerstrom Center visit a must-see, and first and foremost for those most in need of heart-and-mind adjustment.

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Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
August 1, 2017
Photos: Joan Marcus

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