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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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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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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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (April 13)

Highlights for this busy weekend include “Guys and Dolls” (a collaboration between Fresno Pacific University and the Selma Arts Center), a concert for all proud band geeks, the not-to-miss StageWorks Fresno cabaret, and the tantalizingly titled play “Nana’s Naughty Knickers.”

‘Guys and Dolls’

You know her as a powerhouse actress who last gave us a walloping Hedda Gabler. Now Brooke Aiello, an adjunct theater professor at Fresno Pacific University, is making her directorial debut with “Guys and Dolls.”

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A scene from rehearsal in “Guys and Dolls.” Photo by Karen Vargas / Fresno Pacific University

For the first time, the university is collaborating with the Selma Arts Center for a one-weekend run of a musical. The production includes students, community members and a special guest artist: professional actor Chris Carsten. (He just happened to play opposite Aiello in last summer’s New Ensemble production of “Hedda Gabler”). He will play a cameo as Arvide Abernathy, who sings the touching song “More I Cannot Wish You.”

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Under a big top, ‘The Fantasticks’ offers stylish take on a classic musical

The new StageWorks Fresno production feels sturdy and elegant

THEATER REVIEW

Whenever I think of “The Fantasticks,” the first thing that comes to mind is the TV series “Law and Order.” This is not a sophisticated theatrical allusion, I confess, but Jerry Orbach — who made his first big career splash in 1960 playing the pivotal role of El Gallo in the show off-Broadway — has parked himself permanently in my brain at the synaptical intersection of “Fantasticks” and “What I Think.” And good for him. He hit it big as a Broadway icon, then made a ton of dough on network TV, thus spending his old age in style rather than in a fourth-floor walkup off Ninth Avenue with a bathtub in the kitchen.

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Terry Lewis, center, leads the cast of “The Fantasticks.” Photo / StageWorks Fresno

The second, and much more relevant, thing I think of in regards to this classic musical is the word skimpy. Say “Fantasticks” and I think of a tiny stage, a ratty little theater, a few desultory props and a whole lot of imagination required on the part of the audience. Minimalism can be a lofty artistic ambition, but it can also mean sparse and low-budget. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never warmed to the show in the way I feel I should. In my mental picture of the experience, I worry about a piece of the ceiling falling on me.

All of this is a somewhat long-winded explanation as to why I so much admire the look and feel of the new StageWorks Fresno production of “The Fantasticks,” which continues at the Fresno Art Museum through April 22. Rather than give us another bare-bones experience in which you could fit the whole company plus set and costume in a VW bus, director J. Daniel Herring offers a handsome, substantial production that sparkles.

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With ‘The Fantasticks,’ StageWorks opens a musical to remember

The intimate production is famous for running off-Broadway for 42 years

THEATER PREVIEW

If I had a dollar for every time a theater writer started off a story about “The Fantasticks” with some variation on the phrase “Try to remember,” I could afford all the Broadway shows my heart desired. It’s a reference to the show’s most beloved song, of course, sung by Jerry Orbach in the role of El Gallo way back in the off-Broadway production of the musical in 1960. (The new StageWorks Fresno production opens Friday, April 6, at the Fresno Art Museum.)

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Meg Clark (as Luisa), left, Aaron Lowe (as Matt) and Terry Lewis (who plays the Narrator and El Gallo) in “The Fantasticks.” Photo / StageWorks Fresno

And I remember how heartbreaking that song felt after 9/11, thanks to those opening lines:

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh
so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember and if you remember
then follow
follow.

I was living in New York in 2002, and when September came around that year, with the intense reflection on the first anniversary of 9/11, the Times did a story about the almost prescient lyrics of “Try to Remember.” I’ve made the connection ever since. Perhaps that’s one of the keys to the longevity of “The Fantasticks” — it adapts to the times but also offers a nostalgic view of an earlier, simpler era.

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A fond adieu to 2017

I’ve already told you my Top 20 favorite cultural events for 2017. Now here are a couple of year-ender wrap-up lists that I can’t resist:

My favorite stories of the year

My criteria: It’s completely subjective. I just like how these stories came out. For some, it was the fun in reporting them, and for others the joy in writing them. (Note: Because of my hybrid year — working through May as the Fresno Bee’s arts reporter, and the remainder of the year in my new role at The Munro Review — you’ll find stories from both platforms.) Here they are in chronological order:

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In the moment of totality: my photograph taken from Mary’s Peak in central Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Photo / The Munro Review

In Delphi, a mysterious past provokes navel gazing: In this travel piece from Greece, I visit the strangely moody location where the famed oracles changed the ancient world.

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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (Oct. 20)

Here’s a roundup of promising arts/culture picks for the weekend:

Drive-through

All eyes on Saturday will be on the Fulton Mall — whoops, Fulton Street, and it will be a while before I can train myself to automatically say that — for the official ribbon-cutting and opening celebration. This isn’t just an event; it’s an historic occasion. I remember when I came to Fresno more than 25 years ago for my job interview, and my future boss took me to lunch at the Downtown Club, pointed in the direction of the mall, and told me, “We hope this can be revitalized soon.”

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Photo / Downtown Fresno Partnership

So, decades later, change is in the air. I’m crossing my fingers.

Bethany Clough has a nice list in The Bee of pop-up stores and restaurants that will line the street for the 3 p.m. ribbon cutting at Fulton Street and Mariposa Mall. Most will be open until 10. (It’s nice to see the Fresno Art Museum on the list with a wine/shopping option.) There will be two beer gardens and three stages for live music.

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