The Irresistible pull of memory

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

If you're the kind of person who likes a traditional musical - you know, boy meets girl, hummable tunes, linear narrative structure to a big redemptive finish - if that's your thing, Fun Home at the Ahmanson is probably just going to frustrate you.

If, on the other hand, you’re a little more adventurous, keep listening.

Fun Home is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir, which tries to piece together exactly what made her dad tick before he tragically ended his own life. (Right there you know you're not in safe musical territory.) The narrative drive of the story is split in three. One is the story of a little girl finding her uncomfortable way in the world and discovering in college that she's a lesbian. Another is the story of a married man with three kids and a wife. He's deeply closeted and can't come to terms with his own passion. And the third is the story of that little girl, now a woman, looking back and trying to piece together the memory of that father and family. Why at the moment that she found her way in life did he choose to end his?

Fun Home will fill an audience with questions. Why does it give away it's big secret, that Dad's gay, up front rather than driving towards a more traditional third act reveal? Why are some of the songs so complicated and unsettling? And maybe most poignantly, why is memory so slippery and the urge to make sense of it all so strong?

With the exception of a couple of production numbers that are fun but feel designed to satisfy some invisible "song and dance" quotient, Fun Home is a really complicated puzzle that you only understand once you try and rearrange the pieces.

A bit like trying to figure out a memory from childhood.

Oh, that's why dad was angry. I get it, they tell us dad's secret up front because the play isn't just about him. Ah-hah, that song is awkward because that moment is awkward.

Most musicals fit a familiar story into a familiar mold. It's like comfort food. You know what to expect and when you get it you applaud. Deviations from that formula are defects. Fun Home isn't playing that game. Instead, it's adapting form to fit a more complicated narrative. One where our focus and experience is layered. Where those questions are part of the experience. Where we can imagine a girl at three different ages dealing with the same complicated emotions. Where we can understand both a father's story and a mother's and, even a daughter's without reducing it all to one tidy idea.

That might frustrate some audience members. But for others it'll be deeply satisfying and a hint at what's possible in a musical. If you love the traditional, go but with an open mind. If you're not usually the kind of person who likes musicals, this is one to go to.

Fun Home plays at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown through April 1.

For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out:

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: (L-R) Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in the national tour of Fun Home. Photo © 2016 Joan Marcus