"Fun Home" at the Ahmanson Theatre

03/10/2017 12:38 pm ET

The musical based on Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic novel covers familiar and mostly predictably territory, but is wrapped up in a pleasing score and solid performances. While the show was highly praised when it opened in 2014, it already feels oddly dated. With epic, groundbreaking works like Hamilton changing the landscape of musical theater, not to mention the social and political upheaval in the nation, Fun Home and its ilk feel like an artifact from another time.

Using a well-worn theatrical device, three characters – small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino), medium Alison (Caroline Murrah – understudying the role in the reviewed performance) and grown-up Alison (Kate Shindle) tell her coming-age-story. Growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, Alison is the daughter of a funeral home director who is hiding his sexual identity. Her father Bruce (Robert Petkoff) is alternately demanding and loving, ensnaring his wife (Susan Moniz) and children, who include John (Lennon Nate Hammond) and Christian (Pierson Salvador), in his web of lies and emotional torture.

The play is structured around a series of flashbacks from Alison’s childhood and college years, with the grownup Alison serving as a silent witness to the journey. The show features several entertaining and uplifting musical numbers, including a raucous all-kid commercial for their dad’s funeral home and a very funny musical paen to first lust. However, for the most part, the production is plodding and predictable as Alison trudges from a dysfunctional childhood to often painful liberation, even as she revisits her troubled relationship with her father.

The performances are solid – some even rise to excellence in an otherwise pedestrian production. Baldacchino is a sprightly and saucy presence, and young Hammond and Salvador help the kids steal the show. Murrah, who filled in as understudy, had a wide-eyed and quirky take on her character that was a standout. Petkoff was solid in a role that required a delicate balancing act. And Karen Eilbacher brought a dose of realism to the piece, which seemed often to wander into abstraction. Score by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist/librettist Lisa Kron was engaging and sharp – one would hope that in the future they will tackle more challenging material.

The kitchen-sink family drama has been a mainstay of American theater for more than a century, with a number of iconic plays from O’Neill to Miller and Albee forming the canon. It is not only a high standard to follow, it is also such well-trodden turf that most attempts fall into deep potholes, as does this piece. Hopefully, the next generation of musicals will widen the scope and sweep of the genre and offer a fresher perspective on the universal human condition.

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