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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Fun Home’ musical delves souls in Green Bay

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Music

Basic setup for “Fun Home” presented by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Music. (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Along the way, a key character says, “I thought I had a life I understood.”

That feeling ripples through “Fun Home” – through lives and possibly into the audience.

“Fun Home” turns in unique ways.

It is entertainment that educates and affects.

The main character is a lesbian. Her father is gay.

Those two sentences are a struggle for each to say.

Having that struggle played out on stage is invigorating and daunting – stuff that once wasn’t talked about, much less expressed in a musical.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Music production running for two more performances in University Theatre thrives on accomplished direction and creative collaboration and a cast primed to unleash a high-octane story.

Aisa Rogers, from left, Annie Skorupa, Sean Stalvey and Jasmine Christyne rehearse a scene for the UWGB production of “Fun Home.” (UWGB Theatre and Music)

Songs in “Fun Home” don’t necessarily flow on gliding melodies but are expressions of emotion and thought.

The “Fun” of the title is short for “funeral.” Instead of “funeral home,” three frisky kids who live there have given their home the nickname of “fun home.”

The kids do have fun in Bechdel Funeral Home. They make up a commercial ditty that’s pure dark comedy – “Come to the Fun Home” – an invitation that folks would rather pass on.

Other elements are pure dark – their father’s shady side.

Bruce Bechdel is a Renaissance man. He teaches. Has a taste for literature. Has a taste for fine points of historical preservation. Has a taste for philosophy. Has a knack for art. Has a taste for music. Has a knack for caring for the dead as part the needs of running a funeral home, the family business. He also has a taste for young men.

Bruce Bechdel is a burning man.

His daughter, Alison, is trying to understand him and her.

“Fun Home” opens with Alison (Jasmine Christyne), at age 43, watching herself at age 9. Small Alison (Annie Skorupa) is singing a song in which she is calling for her father (Sean Stalvey).

The adult Alison is a walking memory. Not only does she see herself as a playful child with her mischievous siblings, Christian (Alyssa Mocadlo) and John (Katie Koehn), she flashes on her awakening moments as a college student. She then is Medium Alison (Audrey Soberg).

The adult Alison is an accomplished artist. Her expertise is the graphic novel, autobiographical in this case. She is seen throughout busily sketching and calling upon herself to describe her drawings – filling in the blanks after she says, “Caption…” Backdrops in this production are an accomplishment – the artist’s images of the funeral home she remembers drawn and displayed as large blowups.

Alison at 43 is bringing her life to new form, searching for clues and revelations along the way. She is searching about herself and her father. Alison notes early on that she is like her father but not like her father. In bringing her memory to pages, Alison tells of discoveries about her sexuality and that of her father – clouded by his demise that is spoken of early in the show.

Authors Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron earned the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical with “Fun Home.”

Theirs – and the real Alison Bechdel, who wrote an autobiographical graphic novel – is an unusual story told in special ways.

Director John Mariano and musical director Courtney Sherman – he from the theater department, she from music – tap into the complexities of the soles in the story and gift that to their student cast. The combination works well often, notably in one solo song, thus:

Aisa Rogers portrays Helen Bechdel, the wife. Helen is an admired actress. She shares three children with Bruce. She nurtures family needs and certain of Bruce’s abilities. At the same time, Helen experiences Bruce’s explosive temper and demands – woven into her life. The life has had bright moments, but the dark is relentless. The song is “Day after Day,” and Aisa Rogers defines its complexities of beauty, of ache, of agony in nuances of her voice, her body, her facial expression. She has entered a persona in song.

That’s a prime sample, and others have done that as well – Jasmine Christyne as adult Alison, Audrey Soberg as Medium Alison, Annie Skorupa as Small Alison and Sean Stalvey as Bruce Bechdel. There’s a lot of strength in their characterizations.

“Fun Home” is smart and earthy and disarming and disturbing and fun and very much not.

This and that:

+ Sexuality is a character. Bruce is secretive. Helen’s take on that to Alison is, “You father tell the truth? Please.” Bruce’s attractions are seen in a series of characters, all portrayed by Mickey Wirtz, who can be a workman who willingly opens his shirt or a former student Bruce offers a ride. (Mickey Wirtz also gets to be a pop star in a catchy disco song). In college, Alison wrestles with her sexuality with “I don’t want to be a lesbian” before the picture comes clear through meeting a member of the Gay Union, Joan (Jenny Witt). A lightbulb goes off for Alison in the comical/profound song “Changing My Major,” with its revealing tagline, “to Joan.” Alison’s joy in revelation is cut short at home; her mother believes Alison’s sexuality is a choice and Alison is sorely mistaken.

+ The University Theatre stage is an expansive space for “Fun Home.” Scenes take place at distances from one another. Sound is amplified by wireless headsets for the players.

+ The printed program is a single 5½ by 8½-inch heavy weight paper slick in color with basic information and a Q code on the front. The code leads the way to scanning a full program via cell phone.

+ Music is sweet and uplifting and churning and exciting, while often dealing with multiple feelings. A live band delivers it all.

+ Conflicted emotions abound. On opening night Thursday, that was telling in long periods of the audience’s intense listening silence. The performance received a standing ovation, with a student section especially whooping it up for the university’s first live, in-person theatrical production since the pandemic.

+ Insistent in my mind was the thought that this production would not have happened not that long ago without cries of shock and alarm. Now it’s part of life’s fabric, not always easily understood.

***

Creative: Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel: music – Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics – Lisa Kron; director – John Mariano; musical director – Courtney Sherman; choreography – Denise Carlson Gardner; scenic designer – Tom Wallestad; costume designer – Kaoime E. Malloy; lighting and sound designer – Dinesh Yadev; live sound mix – Matthew Reindl; hair/make-up designer – Kaoime E. Malloy; properties designer – Isabelle Austgen; technical director – Dinesh Yadev; assistant technical director – David Cook; stage manager – Tyrus Cretens

Cast:

Alison – Jasmine Christyne

Medium Alison – Audrey Soberg

Small Alison – Annie Skorupa

Bruce Bechdel – Sean Stalvey

Helen Bechdel – Aisa Rogers

Christian Bechdel – Alyssa Mocaldo

John Bechdel – Katie Koehn

Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby Jeremy – Mickey Wirtz

Joan – Jenny Witt

Band: Conductor – Courtney Sherman; keyboard – Emily Sculliuffo; violin and viola – Ellen Zhang; cello – Kara Diedrich; clarinet and bass clarinet – Emma Brickey; tenor saxophone and flute – Anthony Fenner; guitar – Jeremy Raduenz; bass – Anthony Pesavento

Running time: One hour, 42 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19-20

Info: uwgb.edu/theatre or ticketstaronline.com.

Note 1: Masks required for audience due to COVID-19 protocol.

Note 2: Recommended for ages 14 and older due to subject matter and language.

***

Songs

“It All Comes Back” (Opening) – Small Alison, Bruce, Alison and Company

“Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” – Helen, Alison, Small Alison, Christian, Jo, Bruce and Roy

“Come to the Fun Home” – Jo, Christian and Small Alison

“Changing My Major” – Medium Alison

“Maps” – Bruce, Alison

“Raincoat of Love” – Bobby Jeremy and Company

“Pony Girl” – Bruce

“Ring of Keys” – Small Alison

“Days and Days” – Helen

“Telephone Wire” –Alison and Bruce

“Edges of the World” – Bruce

Finale: “Flying Away” – Alison, Medium Alison and Small Alison

***

NEXT: “Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker, Feb. 24-26, March 2-5.

THE VENUE: Of 1970s vintage, the 450-seat University Theatre is a complex facility inside Theatre Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The theater features a proscenium (flat front) stage that’s 50 feet across and 23 feet high. The seats are a calm shade of red fabric, black plastic backs and light brown arms. The concrete walls gray and slightly angled. The ceiling is a semi-dark green/blue for the coverings ventilating/electrical equipment. Concrete dominates the room – the floor, the walls, the stairs. Aisle carpeting is a flecked gray. The seating area in front of the stage is adjustable to accommodate an orchestra pit when needed. The theater includes two seating areas – a lower one 20 or so feet deep on a slight incline that reaches a poured concrete wall and the upper one above that “moat” that rises sharply and creates an amphitheater effect. The theater may be entered from the lower or upper level.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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