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“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.

 

 

 

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.”