The musical starts in a jolly homespun way about a seemingly happy family in Pennsylvania. Bruce the father (the versatile Robert Petkoff) is multi-faceted: high school English professor, house restorer and funeral home director. The latter vocation is the reference for the play’s title, which title soon proves ironic. The daughter is the other main character, adroitly played through three ages by three actors: Kate Shindle as ‘Alison,’ Abby Corrigan as ‘Medium Alison’ and Alessandra Baldacchino as ‘Small Alison.’
Over the course of the crisp intermission-less play, Alison tells her story as refracted through her father’s eyes. The discovery that Bruce has a secret life with a series of gay encounters shatters Allison’s world, just as she is coming to grips with her own homosexuality. Alison’s self-discovery while a new student at Oberlin College is perhaps the most arresting, powerful and successful moment in the play, when she sings about changing her major to Joan.
There is a bit of the dark humor seen in HBO’s “Six Feet Under” series, especially when the three children bring down the house early in the proceedings with their interpretation of an impossible TV advertisement for the funeral/fun home.
Helen (Susan Moniz) plays a more difficult role, as she is constantly reacting not only to her husband’s indiscretions but to her daughter’s coming out. The father represents the last generation to have the most difficulty in handling homosexuality, whereas his daughter is born into a generation which is more accepting of such diversity.
There is a heart wrenching sequence where the father and daughter are waiting for the other to open up about the elephant in the room, their homosexuality, with the audience on the edge of their seat waiting for the characters to break through their awkward hesitancy.
The youngest Alison has been with the production with the production for a long time, and her ease with the role is evident. The college age Medium Allison has perhaps the most difficult role of the three; she has to express the moment when her sexuality bubbles to the surface, which is revealed not only to herself, but to her lover Joan and eventually her family as well.
Hovering over all the proceedings is the adult Allison who watches the proceedings via her actual profession as a lesbian cartoonist. During various moments of higher drama she is able to telegraph to the audience by constantly repeating “caption” as she struggles to process the action.
Most of the songs do a good job of revealing the emotional complexity of the main characters. There is one somewhat strange digression wherein the cast is perkily attired in mid ‘70s Young Americans meet Partridge Family, but this juxtaposition is a wistful familial aspiration for normalcy. The stage set is an astute representation of an orderly restoration that the father seeks. The orchestra, well conducted by Micah Young, is situated upstage and hence made a visible integration of the proceedings.
The musical won five 2015 Tony Awards® including Best Musical, and the current production at the Ahmanson is very strong.