Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Musical ‘Fun Home’ brings awareness home in Tisch Mills

Critic At Large

The Forst Inn Arts Collective

Program covers

TISCH MILLS, Wis. (WFRV) – In the middle of the set is a fireplace with a mantel. As is sometimes the case with theater, this set piece can be moved and rotated to reveal something else. On the opposite face of this mantel is a casket. Welcome to “Fun Home,” which turns in unique ways.

“Fun Home” is a musical. Its songs 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,” frisky kids who live there have given their home the nickname of “fun home.”

The kids do have fun in Bechdel Funeral Home, but, like the mantel set piece, much turns in the story of one of them. It is an unusual story told in special ways. It is the latest offering of The Forst Inn Arts Collective, which often creates inventive playgoing in its crossroads theater near farmland.

The special mantel/casket was built by Michael Sheeks. He is the guiding force of The Forst Inn Arts Collective and the director of this production that has a special company of local talent.

It takes 10 seconds to know the experience of “Fun Home” and this production has special qualities. Action starts when a girl arrives from a wing and sings an adult song in which she is calling for her father. The girl is age 12. Also present, observing, is the girl’s adult self. The adult is a walking memory. Not only does the adult see herself at 12 but as a first-year college student. The three are Alison.

The adult Alison is creating an autobiographical graphic novel. She is seen throughout busily sketching and calling upon herself to describe her drawings – filling in the blanks after she says, “Caption…”

Alison 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.

“Fun Home” won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Bringing cosmopolitan Broadway to The Forst Inn stage is an adventure. The adventures of “Fun Home” include churn about what it is to live in worlds of sexualities that exist in a solar system of individuality. Alison and her father, Bruce, are alike but not.

Director Michael Sheeks and music director/choreographer Kevin James Sievert collaborate with a remarkable cast to shape a dynamic production.

+ Remarkable: Three children are woven in as key in the storytelling. The three youngsters act, sing and dance. Their real ages are 12 (Chloe Johanek), 12 (Elliott Lotto) and 9 (Gertie Lotto). The three fit right in and create a picture of mischievous youngsters living in a funeral home and dealing with a smart and sometimes mysterious dad. Chloe Johanek also stands and delivers a solo – the angst of “Ring of Keys.”

+ Remarkable: Tessa Komorowski as the grown Alison as she represents of the fire of a visual artist in the midst of creating and at the same time trying to come to terms with herself and the whys of her father. She creates the aura of a burning ember, always singing and acting with strength.

+ Remarkable: Ally Stokes (age 20), in character creation and song, as the collegiate Alison in struggles with “I don’t want to be a lesbian” before the picture comes clear. Ally Stokes blossoms in the comical/profound solo “Changing My Major,” with its revealing tagline, “to Joan.”

+ Remarkable: Tessa Komoroski, Chloe Johanek and Ally Stokes – the three Alisons together in song and dance. “Fun Home” creators Lisa Kron and Jeanne Tesori ran with writer Alison Bechdel’s ideas, and The Forst Inn folks cap it off sensationally.

+ Remarkable: Patrick Schamburek as the father, a Renaissance man with his taste for historic preservation, literature, music and philosophy. At the same time, Bruce cares for the dead as he operates the family business, the funeral home. And he has another double life. Patrick Schamburek has a regular guy aura to his performance, which adds to his believability.

+ Remarkable: Deanne Stokes as the mother, who represents persons who believe being gay is a choice and a wife dealing with a secretive spouse. Deanne Stokes lights flares of anger, and fires up the song “Days,” which is about day after day of holding on.

+ Remarkable: Sam Oswald and Brittieny Simmer in astute portraits of individual other halves.

The music is by flowing soundtrack that was created by local musicians.

Much searching has gone into creating the atmosphere of the fussy and historical furnishings and décor of the Bechdel Funeral Home.

Basic setup for “Fun Home.” (Warren Gerds)

Wireless headsets common today, but they are not used at The Forst Inn stage because of the acoustic quality of the space. The singing has a natural feel.

Overall, “Fun Home” is a tender and tough piece that raises consciousness. Alison is telling about “life shattered and laid bare.” But her story is told – and presented – in special ways.

Driving on a county highway Friday night – eyes alert for deer and passing barns and fields of harvested crops – on the way to see a show that played on Broadway, I remarked to my wife that our “going to the theater is not the same meaning as in New York City.” Driving home afterward, my thought was, again, it’s hard to believe what can be found in that crossroad theater.

***

Creative: Based on the Alison Bechdel graphic novel: book and lyrics – Lisa Kron; music – Jeanine Tesori; stage direction and lightings – Michael Sheeks; music direction, piano, choreography – Kevin James Sievert; set dressing – Nannette Macy; costume design – Claran LaViolette; technical direction – Jeff LaFond; stage management – Lisa Heili

Cast:

Young Alison – Chloe Johanek

Bruce Bechdel – Patrick Schamburek

Alison Bechdel – Tessa Komorowski

Jo Bechdel – Gertie Lotto

Christian Bechdel – Elliott Lotto

Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby Jeremy  – Sam Oswald

Joan – Brittieny Simmer

Helen Bechdel – Deanne Stokes

Middle Alison – Ally Stokes

Orchestra: Charlie Collins (guitar), Phillip Jindra (piano), Jordan Jones (bass), Garrett Leigh (drums), Nancy Leigh (bassoon)

Running time: Two hours

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9; 2 p.m. Oct. 10; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22-23; 2 p.m. Oct. 24; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28-30

Info: forstinn.org

***

Songs

Act I

“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

Act II

“Pony Girl” – Bruce

“Ring of Keys” – Small Alison

“Days” – Helen

“Telephone Wire” –Alison and Bruce

“Edges of the World” – Bruce

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

***

NEXT: “The Smell of the Kill” by Michelle Lowe, Nov. 12-21.

THE VENUE: The historic Forst Inn is located at the corner of Kewaunee County roads B and BB. The building dates to 1868, with assorted lives over the years. For a notable period – 1990 into the 2000s – the place was popular for productions of Little Sandwich Theatre, which Manitowoc attorney Ron Kaminski (deceased 2018) nurtured with a caring hand as artistic director/performer/do-all for a wide array of productions. The present venture is of that spirit. The stage is wide and narrow. The space is intimate. Seating is at small tables on two levels in a slight arc in front of the slightly raised stage. To the audience’s rear is the stage director’s space, with light and sound controls. The space is essentially a black box in theater style in the front – with additions: two chandeliers above the audience, a street lamp the seating area and the ambiance of 1920s style elements to the rear in a service area.  A seating/serving area is in the middle of the building, along with a ticketing counter. The bar area out front includes the bar, table seating, more 1920s ambiance and a passage to an art gallery (rotating artists) that is now part of the offerings of The Forst Inn Arts Collective overseen by Michael Sheeks, who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus in Manitowoc.

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