With a tender and luminous ‘Fun Home,’ StageWorks illustrates the power of musical theater

THEATER REVIEW

It’s so easy to praise “Fun Home” for being important — the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist — that it’s easy to forget just how good it is. I love the way this cheeky adaptation flings its arms around the drawings and captions of Alison Bechdel’s famed graphic memoir and makes them live and breathe in the altogether different world of the stage. I revel in the deep and conflicted characters — not just the pivotal role of Alison herself, but also her father and mother, whose transgressions and heartaches have been (heartbreakingly) immortalized. I admire the way Bechdel’s memories of her dysfunctional childhood never bog down in the melodramatic but instead trace a spare, elegant arc of human dignity and resilience. I applaud the way the play nuzzles and flirts with memory, never striving for the authoritative but instead offering an unabashedly impressionistic picture of a life. I smile at the humor. And hurt at the tears.

Video: Thani Brant gives an in-studio performance of “Changing My Major” from “Fun Home.” It’s a bonus clip from the July episode of “The Munro Review” on CMAC.


Most of all, I love the way the score (music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Lisa Kron) amplifies and enhances the emotional power of the material. For days after seeing the opening night performance of the fine new StageWorks Fresno production (which continues through July 15), a song from the show rattled around in my head. It might not be the one you’d expect. It wasn’t “Ring of Keys,” the beautiful exploration of burgeoning sexuality performed by Small Alison (played by a terrific Novi Alexander) as she melts at the sight of a butch delivery woman. And it wasn’t “Changing My Major,” the bursting-with-first-love comic showstopper sung by Medium Alison (a wonderful Thani Brant), just after her first sexual experience.

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5 picks for July ArtHop

A salute to “Papa Mike” McGarvin of Poverello House tops the list

July’s ArtHop — the monthly open house of galleries and studios in the downtown and Tower District neighborhoods — might be a little slower in the heat of the summer, but there are still lots of options. ArtHop is 5-8 p.m. (at most locations) on Thursday, July 5.  The Fresno Arts Council has a full list of venues and shows. Here are five exhibitions that I think sound promising:

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Jeffrey Scott Agency

Mike McGarvin, affectionately known as “Papa Mike” of Poverello House fame, took many photographs of the homeless. You can see 20 of his most powerful images in a show titled “View to the Soul” along with works from other distinguished photographers.

Papa Mike took photos because he didn’t want people forgotten, says Jeff Negrete of Poverello House. “He wanted those who didn’t understand the trauma of poverty to see that the poor are not faceless.”

Here’s how Papa Mike said it: “I hope my pictures have put a face on their desperation and captured their humanity. I hope that these pictures say, we are poor, but not too different than you. We love, we hurt, we bleed.”

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Great spirit at Summer Arts kickoff, but I’m disappointed in 1st performance

The scene: The opening Summer Arts performance on Monday at Fresno State. There’s always a fresh, optimistic feel on an evening like this: the heat of the day just starting to cool; the well-manicured empty campus giving off that lazy, inviting, vacation vibe; the clumps of newly arrived arts students wandering around getting their bearings. Community members in the audience — including the movers and shakers who are key to the support of the annual California State University festival — milled about before the performance begins, cooing and greeting. It’s nice moment.

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A moment from Spectrum Dance Theater’s “H.R. 3244,” performed Monday at Fresno State. Photo / Todd Sharp, CSU Summer Arts

The introductions: Rachel Nardo, the Summer Arts director, welcomed the community members in the audience. Honora Chapman, associate dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, likewise gave her pitch for the arts (which I always love to hear: Every student at Fresno State takes classes in the college, and it’s the one opportunity to smear some culture on them before they go on to their tightly defined job worlds).

The performance: The Seattle-based Spectrum Dance Theater offered “H.R. 3244,” choreographed by Donald Byrd, which received its world premiere April 5 in Seattle.

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Now streaming: the July episode of ‘The Munro Review’

I’m proud of this month’s episode of “The Munro Review” on CMAC! It includes my first story shot on location. Producer Kyle Lowe and I trekked out to Reedley’s River City Theatre Company to check out a rehearsal for “Memphis: The Musical,” which opens Friday, July 6. We interviewed Camille Gaston and Jonathan Wheeler, who star in the show.

And for my second major segment, I interview “the three Alisons” (Haley White, Thani Brant and Novi Alexander) of the StageWorks Fresno production of “Fun Home.” The episode includes a performance by Novi singing “Ring of Keys.” We also taped Thani singing the show-stopping song “Changing My Major” but couldn’t use it because of time constraints. I will post the clip separately on Wednesday as a holiday bonus.


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Welcome to Summer Arts 2018: Here are 5 picks

Plus: You can win a pair of tickets to Friday’s ‘Evening of Flute’ event.

That blast of central air you feel coming from the Fresno State dorms is the whoosh of Summer Arts returning.

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Spectrum Dance Theater opens the 2018 CSU Summer Arts season on Monday, July 2. Photo / Spectrum Dance Theater

The Fresno-area arts community’s happy welcome continues for this annual California State University festival. Last year marked the return of the month-long program to the university after a five-year absence. The latest season opens 7 p.m. Monday, July 2, at the John Wright Theatre with a public performance of Spectrum Dance Theater. (This is sure to be one of the most popular public events of the festival. Not only is the company a big-name draw, but the first performance of Summer Arts also serves as a way to welcome students, so public tickets are limited. It’s important to buy them in advance.)

Following that, there’s a nice lineup of performances and lectures over the next four weeks that includes dance, classical music, comedy, photography and more. Regular tickets are $15-$25. And don’t forget the free student showcases (July 13-14 and July 27-28) that culminate each of the festival’s two-week sessions. They’re a great (and economical) way to experience budding creativity at its most promising.

To help you sort through the calendar, I checked in with Summer Arts marketing guru Tanya Osegueda, and we came up with 5 Events Not to Miss:

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The faces of Alison: These StageWorks actors embrace the roles of 3 lifetimes

StageWorks Fresno opens the much anticipated ‘Fun Home,’ a musical about fathers and daughters, coming out and the ache of memory

THEATER PREVIEW

Ever since StageWorks Fresno announced last August that it had nabbed the rights to the local premiere of the musical “Fun Home,” interest has been intense. It’s certainly been the most anticipated local theater event of the year among readers of The Munro Review, at least if you go by page clicks.

Now the wait is over. “Fun Home,” directed by J. Daniel Herring, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 29, at the Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North performing arts center. It runs through July 15.

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At a recent rehearsal, Novi Alexander plays Young Alison in ‘Fun Home.’ Photo / StageWorks Fresno

When I saw the show on Broadway in 2015, here’s how I described it for The Fresno Bee:

Some shows grab you, hug you, squeeze you. Others play it cool, self-aware and all-knowing, almost daring you to join the club. “Fun Home,” a beguiling and intensely emotional experience, does neither. Instead it treats you as if you’re so much part of a familiar landscape that it forgets you’re there.

It’s like when you were little and spent so much time at a best friend’s house that you become part of the fabric of the family’s backstage life, from dysfunction to joy, almost as if you were an honorary member. Ah, the things you could learn just by keeping quiet.

In “Fun Home,” composer Jeanine Tesori and writer-lyricist Lisa Kron transform the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s popular graphic-novel memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” into a spare and beautiful musical. Bechdel’s adult self is narrator, looking back at herself as a 9-year-old navigating through childhood and as a 19-year-old college freshman embracing the fact she’s gay.

I got the chance to sit down with the three “StageWorks Alisons” a few days ago for a wide-ranging interview about fathers, mothers, childhood, memory, sexuality, music and more. I was struck by the way each already seems to have found a distinctive center of gravity when it comes to their characters. Their thoughtfulness and passion have already permeated how they talk about the musical and the impact it already has had on their lives.

Here are excerpts from my discussion with Novi Alexander, who plays Young Alison; Thani Brant, as Medium Alison; and Haley White, who portrays Adult Alison.

Donald: Some people are surprised that “Fun Home” is actually short for “Funeral Home.” As Alison remembers her childhood, much of it has to do with the funeral home owned by her father, Bruce (played by Terry Lewis). Is this creepy at all?

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Remembering Andrew Massey, former Fresno Philharmonic conductor

In the 65 years of the Fresno Philharmonic’s existence, a small but mighty band of men (and now a woman!) have served as music director. We lost one of them recently. Andrew Massey, who led the orchestra at various times from 1983 to 1991, died earlier this month at his home in Vermont at the age of 72.

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Andrew Massey’s long career in classical music included a stint as music director of the Fresno Philharmonic.

Mr. Massey went on to do some wonderful things after his time in Fresno, including serving as conductor of the Toledo Symphony, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Green Mountain Mahler Festival and the Middlebury College Orchestra. The college reports that his career included stints as associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and New Orleans Symphony, and a conductor or leader of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Oregon Mozart Players, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Racine Symphony, and the Indonesian National Symphony Orchestra in Jakarta.

He was born in England and studied at Oxford University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 2002, he became a U.S. citizen.

Mr. Massey is remembered fondly by musicians who played with him in Fresno.

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Children’s Musical Theaterworks gets extension to use Memorial Auditorium through 2019

Plus: Company announces its first “CMT’s Got Talent” fundraiser. Mark your calendars for Aug. 17

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Good news for Children’s Musical Theaterworks: After nearly getting kicked out of the city-owned Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium late last year because of that aging building’s safety issues, the theater company got a one-year reprieve and was allowed to stage productions there through 2018. Now it’s been granted another one-year extension on that agreement, through 2019.

CMT board president K.C. Rutiaga tells me:

The city has agreed to allow us another season, as we have shown our diligence in seeking a donor for the theater (no news on that yet). So we are working on titles for the 2019 season and will be announcing them July 13 at the opening of “Once on This Island.”

If you recall, the city agreed to let the theater company continue to use the auditorium after a careful assessment of outstanding safety issues. For example, there are restrictions on the use of the fly rails (the equipment used to move backdrops, scenery and scrims up and down) and the electrical equipment. The estimate to fix all the theater’s problems is in the $1 million range. CMT continues to court big-ticket donors for those improvements.

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