Tag Archives: Jeanine Tesori

“Fun Home” Strikes a New Balance on Tour

Fun Home

Review:  Fun Home

By Perry Tannenbaum

Every show that wins a Tony Award for Best Play or Best Musical doesn’t necessarily bowl me over when I head to New York to critique it. Fun Home was one winner that proved itself worthy of all its accolades – five Tonys – and more. The biggest differences between that Broadway production and the current touring version in Charlotte are Knight Theater and Charlotte native Abby Corrigan.

Tightly adapted by Lisa Kron from Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, with an exceptionally varied and emotional score by Kroon and Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home revolves around two complex characters: Alison and her troubled, multi-faceted dad. Bruce is a charismatic English teacher, a visual artist, a restorer of dilapidated houses, a connoisseur of antiques, and owner of the family business, the Bechdels’ funeral home. On the other side of the ledger, Alison’s dad is a neatness-and-control freak.

He’s also a closeted homosexual who preys on underage boys, not above taking advantage of his own students.

So while Alison, played by a succession of three actors, is on a path to discovering her own gay sexuality and becoming a cartoonist, she’s also on a collision course with the truth about her father. Bruce, the meticulous and domineering dad, is on a more fearsome path – to isolation, self-loathing, and suicide.Fun Home

Mostly used for symphony and dance, Knight Theater is probably the best place in town for replicating the Broadway musical experience, markedly better than Belk Theater. But Fun Home wasn’t at a typical Broadway theater for its New York run. At Circle in the Square, the audience surrounded the stage, and when Alison and her two brothers sang “Come to the Fun Home,” a singing advertisement for the funeral home that is the antithesis of solemnity, the three siblings seemed to explode out towards us.

At the Knight, all the action is flattened, and the Bechdel kids merely circle around each other. David Zinn’s scenic pieces seem disappointingly unchanged at first, two-dimensional and cramped on the Knight stage, but during the latter half of the show (there’s no intermission), Zinn exploits the resources of a proscenium stage. Medium Allison’s homecoming becomes more of an event when we see the funeral parlor again.

Corrigan plays the pivotal Middle Allison, flanked by tomboyish Carly Gold as Small Alison and Kate Shindle as the mature, emphatically butch Alison who narrates, often with sketchpad in hand. Gold is every bit as exuberant and appealing as her Broadway counterpart, but it’s Shindle who brings new life – and heartache – to our narrator with a more powerful, penetrating voice.

While both Small Allison and mature Allison are recognizably in the same Broadway mold that won director Sam Gold his Tony Award, Corrigan strikes me as a notably different transitional figure between her younger and older selves. On Broadway, Emily Skeggs leaned more toward the sunny exuberance of Small Allison grown to college age. Corrigan is more of an awkward foreshadowing of the comparatively subdued and serious elder Allison.09FunHomeTour0126r.jpg

As a result, when Medium Allison quickly succumbs to the attractions of Joan and liberates her lesbian leanings, Corrigan gets the same comedy mileage from her anthemic “I’m changing my major to Joan,” but with less raucous exuberance in her delivery. There’s more in-the-moment pragmatism to Corrigan’s take, as if she’s afraid of waking the object of her adoration as she lies sleeping on her bed – or just afraid of breaking an unbelievable magic spell. It’s very effective, and theatergoers seeing Fun Home for the first time will find it hard to imagine “Changing My Major” sung any other way.

With the three touring Allisons more than holding their own versus the original Broadway cast, there’s a further gravitational shift when Robert Petkoff as Bruce doesn’t match the bigger-than-life dimensions of Tony winner Michael Carveris. Amplitude is the difference with Petkoff, not detail, for he expertly navigates all the twists and turns of Bruce’s complexity. In a way, this is beneficial, for the importance of his character and Allison’s development are more evenly balanced on tour.

Further diluting Bruce’s dominance is the steely performance of Susan Moniz as his stoical wife, Helen. It was Moniz who opened my eyes to the Chekhovian dimensions of Kron’s book, for her silences were the first that spoke loudly to me on opening night, and her “Days and Days” had a martyred nobility. Moments later in the show, silence is very much the point when Alison is alone with Bruce in their climactic confrontation, where Shindle suddenly shifts from narrator to actor in the devastating “Telephone Wire” drive.

As Joan, Kally Duling seduces with a self-confident swagger, and Zinn’s costume design underlines her casual sophistication. But Duling never gets a solo, either to comment on Alison or the Bechdels. That’s symptomatic of the only problem I have with the show. Clocking in at 92 minutes on Tuesday, Kron’s script is too tight. It needs to breathe more, maybe as far as – danger ahead! – examining Alison’s feelings about her dad more closely. Yet there’s no denying that Fun Home is truly fun while it lasts, with plenty to mull over afterwards.

 

 

 

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Music to a Mother’s Ears

Preview: Abby Corrigan Comes Home in Fun Home

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

There’s an unforgettably wanton, lascivious, and joyful song nearly halfway through Fun Home, the Tony Award-winning musical that rolls into town next week. Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, Lisa Kron’s script splits our hero in three, the middle-aged Alison who tells us the story and the two younger Alisons, Small and Medium, who live it out.

Small Alison absorbs the first, often misleading impressions of her parents, Bruce and Helen. It’s Medium Alison who discovers the revelatory truths – about her own lesbian leanings and about her dad’s sexual pathology – after she goes off to college. The bold, beautiful, and seductive Joan sets Alison straight about herself, so it’s Medium Alison who gets to jubilantly proclaim, “I’m changing my major to Joan!” as her first and most important college lesson.

Charlotte native Abby Corrigan gets to sing this showstopping song beginning on Tuesday at Knight Theater in what figures to be a triumphant homecoming.

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It’s certainly a sudden change in fortune for the young actress, who turned 19 in February – but not a surprise to those of us who have seen Corrigan perform. She leapt onto the local scene in 2008, while she was still a 10-year-old, as the incorrigible Gladys Herdman in the Children’s Theatre production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Corrigan remained on our radar, playing prominent roles in 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee down in Rock Hill, Next to Normal at Queen City Theatre Company, and delivering a riveting epileptic seizure to climax The Effect of Gamma Rays at CPCC. As the daughter of Mike and Mitzi Corrigan, both of whom acted in Charlotte Repertory Theatre productions, Abby figured to have acting talent.

But Mom, a talent agent and casting director who has a professional’s detachment, saw vivid signs of Abby’s gifts long before she became the Herald Angel shouting “Shazzam!” as Gladys.

“The first time I knew that she had something really special to offer,” says Mitzi, “was when she was 6 years old and we did a backyard production of The Lion King. She was Nala, and when she sang ‘Shadowland,’ I was bowled over by how she became that character and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, where did that come from?!’”

Knowing full well that you need intense passion and inner drive to survive in showbiz, Mitzi never pushed. Abby did plenty of that. At the age of 12, Abby and friend Matt Mitchell started their own theatre company, Treehouse Acting Company, mounting their first production at CAST in NoDa. The following year, Abby, Matt, and two other collaborators staged an original musical, Cybersoul, tackling a range of issues that included drug addiction, bullying, suicide, and homophobia.

You hear about precocious actors – many have paraded in and out of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte spotlight over the years. But have you heard of anyone else who started a theatre company and co-wrote a mature musical before the age of 15?

“It really was off the charts,” Mitzi agrees. “I became good friends with Matt’s mom and we wanted to help them find ways to pursue their dreams. Because producing backyard plays had become such a regular occurrence in our existence, it seemed like a natural step to encourage them to produce their own plays.”

Of course, Abby didn’t think about measuring her ambitions against any norms. According to her mom, acting must be something you have to do in order to breathe if you wish to succeed. That’s how it has always been with Abby. She remembers loving to imitate animals when she was very young, convincing herself that she was truly what she pretended to be. Mom and Dad tried to deflect her into sports, but tee-ball never took.

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“I wanted to show people that I could become anything,” Abby recalls. “As a kid, I would’ve played all the parts if I could have, and I wanted other kids to want to play along with me. I also think Matt and I wanted to play parts that we were too young to play. We would design sets and cast shows we wanted to do for fun, but we wanted to really do the work and make it happen.”

Inevitably, Abby’s talents and drive took her to Northwest School of the Arts, where her theatre exploits – starring in Cabaret, Shrek, and Peter Pan – took her on a rollercoaster ride. At her peaks, Abby was a finalist for Best Actress honors two years in a row at the Blumey Awards, winning a trip to New York for her Princess Fiona in Shrek and a chance to compete against winners from across the country at the national Jimmy Awards, the holy grail of high school theatre prizes.

Just as that brass ring was within sight, the opportunity to perform in front of top Broadway professionals vanished. Initially misdiagnosed in ER, Abby’s appendix ruptured, sending her back into the hospital, and she had to give us her spot at the Jimmys to the Blumey runner-up. Opportunity lost, but Abby was happy just to be alive. She returned to Belk Theater the following season, once again performing onstage as one of the Blumey finalists, but she didn’t win.

“I didn’t want to win that year,” Abby says. “I just wanted to do ‘Ugg-a-Wugg’ with my cast because it was so much fun to scream and bang the ground with sticks onstage as Peter Pan. I mean, come on. That’s what should matter. Not an award.”

Peter_TigerLilyAbby wasn’t totally exiled from New York because of her misfortune and subsequent defeat. For a couple of summers, she participated in a Destination Broadway theatre camp where the musical director was conductor Michael Rafter. So happens that Rafter is the ex-husband of Jeanine Tesori, who wrote music for the “Changing My Major” song – and the entire Fun Home score. When Mitzi invited Rafter to be the keynote speaker at a NW School of the Arts fundraiser, he informed her about Fun Home auditions.

Opportunity was knocking again, but how ready was Abby for it? Medium Alison doesn’t merely participate in this touring version of Fun Home, she drives the action.

“Yes, I about peed myself walking in the audition room those three times,” Abby confesses. The last two of those auditions were in front of three Tony Award winners – Kron, Tesori, and stage director Sam Gold. “I’d never wanted anything more in my life. After my first audition, the casting director gave me tickets to see it on Broadway, and I knew I had to do the show. I just wanted to eat the script/score whole.”

There are easier people to reach than Gold, especially during this year’s Tony Awards weekend, when he was up for a second Best Director trophy for his work on A Doll’s House, Part 2. Busy as he is, he had no trouble remembering Abby’s audition from a year ago, when she was still 18.

“Abby’s audition was one of the best and most memorable of my career,” Gold tells me. “It was like seeing the character of Medium Alison in front of me. She had worked very hard on the material and it was deeply felt, full of detail and comic timing, and she exuded confidence. When we spoke after, she said she was about to graduate, and I said, ‘What college do you go to?’ She said, ‘from high school!’ I couldn’t believe the poise and professionalism I saw was coming from an actor who would barely be of age for the tour.”

Both the poise and the professionalism are somewhat paradoxical in an actor who says she’s constantly striving to maintain the curiosity, fearlessness, and joy of a kid when she works – but her mom finds that onstage poise is just as genuine offstage. Time and again, Mitzi has come across the rejection, the ugly desperation, the deformed egos, and the over-swelled sense of entitlement that stalk theatre people – and she has seen the beauty and happiness it brings to Abby.

“Letting her go has been the hardest thing in the world for me,” Mitzi admits, “but she continually reassures me by saying, ‘Don’t worry mom. I’ve got this!’ Those words are like music to a mother’s ears.”

 

Jews, Blacks, and JFK Converge at Concertized Kushner

Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change

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L-R: Brittany Currie, Tracie Frank, and Veda Covington

By Perry Tannenbaum

The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.

Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.

Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.

Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.

If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.

She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.

Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.

Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?

Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.

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Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.

More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.

So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.

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L-R: Yabi Gedewan, Ibrahim Web, and TyNia Brandon as Caroline’s children

Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.

Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.

I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.

Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum