As Fun Home star Kate Shindle began settling in for a five-week stay in Cleveland last week, she talked about the fun of launching a national tour.
Shindle, who plays Alison in the Tony Award-winning best musical, is doing just that for the first time — launching the first national tour of Fun Home from Playhouse Square, where the show will begin a three-week run at the Connor Palace on Sunday.
“Opening a show is exciting. It’s more exciting than being put into a tour that’s already running,” she said.
The actress, who was Miss America 1998 and is the current president of Actors’ Equity Association, drove to Cleveland from Manhattan last week and rented an apartment in the Warehouse District that has a great view of Lake Erie right from her doorstep. She’s been tooling around Cleveland on her road bike and her folding bike.
“I kinda love to explore via bike,” said Shindle, a Toledo native who also originated the role of Vivienne in Legally Blonde on Broadway.
She was also pleased to learn that her favorite actors’ haunt restaurant, Becky’s (“The pierogis are AMAZING”), is still open. She frequented that joint, which is in close walking distance from Playhouse Square, 16 years ago when she played Sally Bowles in the national tour of Cabaret.
Fun Home, based on the best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, takes audiences on a journey through three ages in Alison’s life as she explores the mysteries of her childhood. Those mysteries center on her demanding and troubled father, Bruce.
It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist and the first show written exclusively by women — music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron — to win a best musical Tony.
Now that the ground-breaking show closed Sept. 10 after 583 performances, audiences across the United States will get to see the work on tour.
“To me, it’s a real mark of how much it was valued that almost the entire original cast stayed with it for the whole run, which is rare” on Broadway, Shindle said.
Fun Home ran in New York nearly 1½ years. After seeing it, Shindle was immediately attracted to the character of Alison: “I have always been really interested in stories about women finding their power and finding their identity.”
She loves how intellectual graphic novelist Bechdel is and appreciates that Fun Home protagonist Alison needs to understand her complex relationship with her father before she can move on with her life. At a statuesque 5 foot, 11 inches, Shindle never had the opportunity to play ingénue roles in her 20s, so she has always gone for complicated, dynamic, passionate female roles. Alison fits right in with that.
The musical’s themes have to do with family and acceptance. On Broadway, where the show had a partnership with PFLAG, the musical helped people talk in a nonthreatening environment about their experiences with gay teen family members. Shindle, who is an AIDS activist, said the tour plans to continue the PFLAG partnership.
“I think we have a responsibility to try to understand, just as compassionate humans,” Shindle said.
On Broadway, Fun Home played in the round at Circle in the Square Theatre. The tour has been restaged from scratch with reconceived sets for proscenium stages.
“How is this small story told in the theater in the round going to translate to big road houses?” Shindle asked herself.
Tech elements including lighting and telescoping the set are designed to minimize the feeling of a small, nine-character show in a large space, the actress said: “The focus is just on telling the story.”
The show’s contemporary score includes a ’70s-style song that sounds like a Jackson 5 tune. Shindle said Tesori’s rhythms and accidentals are a welcome challenge.
“It’s complex music to sing but that’s part of what makes it terrific,” she said.
Fun Home runs 90 minutes, without an intermission. In the story, the protagonist is shocked to learn secrets about her father after his death and struggles to understand her past.
“If you’re in your early 20s or your late teens when you lose a parent, you don’t really get the same chance to see your parents become human beings rather than just your parents that somebody, let’s say, in their 30s or 40s might get,” Shindle said.
The actress is on stage for the entire memory play as Alison looks back on her youth, watching key moments with Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) and Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) unfold. As grown Alison, Shindle wears the same costume for the whole show and also has gone for full authenticity by cutting off her long hair.
Fun Home performances run Tuesdays through Sundays. For tickets, which run $10-$90, call 216-241-6000 or see www.playhousesquare.org.
The tour rehearsed in Manhattan for 3½ weeks and then moved to Cleveland to rehearse for a final 1½ weeks, joined by key members of the original creative team. The tech week schedule is intense but well worth it, Shindle said.
“There’s an awesome kind of tiring that really great theater is,” she said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.