Jeanine Tesori

The Folks at Home

Review of Fun Home, Music Theater of Connecticut

In its Connecticut premiere, directed by Kevin Connors, the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home, which was staged in a thrust space at Circle in the Square on Broadway, finds a home in the intimate thrust space at MTC. The show, which includes several children in its cast and fits the band into the back of the playing space, feels very much at home in the community-theater aspects of the venue.

And there is definitely a homegrown aspect to the musical’s concerns, its living room set made odd by a coffin in the wings. In the early scenes, the children (Ari and Jonah Frimmer and Caitlin Kops) in this house that incorporates a funeral home—nicknamed by the kids “fun home”—set the tone, including a show-stopping and bouncy Jackson Five homage.

front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett

front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett

 

With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, Fun Home, adapted from the graphic novel memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (of Dykes to Watch Out For), looks back at the pains of growing up gay in a small town in Pennsylvania, keeping one eye on the upward trajectory of the protagonist—who we see at three different ages: Small Alison (Caitlin Kops), Middle Alison (Megan O’Callaghan), and Alison (Amy Griffin), our grown-up narrator—and the other eye on a crippling dysfunction in the family.

Bruce (Greg Roderick), the father of three, has another life as a sometimes predatory gay man. Early in the show, Alison announces that she became a lesbian and that her father was gay and killed himself. The effect is to suck much of the bounciness out of what had seemed to be a family chronicle about kids coping with a demanding and fussy father, replacing it with Alison’s brooding view of her childhood. While it may be, in some ways, a happy coming-out story, Fun Home houses a bitter tale of intergenerational failure.

Bitterness is the main note of Amy Griffin’s Alison, but the youngest version of Alison is lighter if only because not so keen to judge Bruce, and Caitlin Kops does a nice job of making Small Alison seem her own person. Small Alison’s struggles with her father tend to be about matters of taste—he takes command of her reading, belittles her choice of TV programs, and demands she make her drawings conform to his dictates.

As played by Greg Roderick, Bruce is not as threatening as Alison views him, merely an unpredictable bully. He seems to be genuinely attached to Alison, as his eldest child and only daughter, and we don’t really get interactions with his sons after those initial scenes. Alison’s view of her father might resonate more if he were creepier, but the scenes she didn’t witness—such as her father’s efforts to seduce high school students and handymen (Anthony Crouchelli)—seem more sad than bad.

While we might see Bruce’s tale as a tragedy in its own right, the elder Alison is more concerned with how his lies and bad choices undermined the family. Alison’s youth is summed up by a few key scenes—an early aversion to wearing dresses, a fascinated view of a butch delivery woman, a visit to the Gay Union at college, followed by the discovery of sex sweetly invoked by Megan O’Callaghan’s bright rendering of “Changing My Major.”

At one point we learn, when Helen (Raissa Katona Bennett), the mother, finally admits her knowledge of the hidden side of Bruce’s sexuality, that the couple has coped their entire lives with his closeted homosexuality and a festering resentment on both sides. We might expect Middle Alison, in college and in a couple with Joan (Abby Root), to feel some compassion, but that doesn’t seem to occur to her. The sense in which adults are unknowable to their children resonates, but, within the memoir conceit, the focus is always on the child’s perspective, making Bruce unknowable to us as well.

Helen is something of a mystery too. She’s away a lot, it seems, as an actress in theater. Raissa Katona Bennett’s performance puts heart into Helen’s songs, such as one about how it feels to maintain a museum-like household to her husband’s satisfaction, and a powerful aria to her daughter about the psychic costs of a long marriage to such a man. Her scenes with Bruce are mostly arguments, and a recollection of their earliest days together ends prematurely.

Late in the play, a visit to the “fun home” by Middle Alison and Joan seems like it might assuage the tensions, though a drive between Alison and Bruce goes nowhere, as neither father or daughter have a clue about how to speak about themselves. In place of a connection, there’s a song by Alison that chronicles the missed opportunity.

The play reaches for a resolution—since it’s harder to leave a musical than a play unresolved—that seems to me more maudlin than moving. It might register with more feeling if there weren’t so many unanswered questions—about Bruce and Helen—and so much overwrought feeling in Alison.

Without Bechdel’s artistry, in her drawing and her wide-ranging literary allusions, the book of Fun Home feels a bit like a Sisyphean punishment in which Alison must circle round and round the story of her life and never come to a different conclusion or a deeper understanding. Not much fun.

 

Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic & Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: Raissa Katona Bennett, Anthony Crouchelli, Ari Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops, Megan O’Callaghan, Greg Roderick, Abby Root

Musicians: Thomas Conroy, conductor / keyboard; Susan Jiminez, violin; Michael Mosca, guitar; Chris Johnson, drums

Music Theatre of Connecticut
April 20-May 6, 2018

Millie's Winning Makeover

Review of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Goodspeed Musicals

Once a campy and very dated romantic comedy musical film, released in 1967 but set in 1922, Richard Morris’s familiar story of a young girl come to the big city with a dream to marry smart (i.e., for money) has a new lease on life. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a vehicle for Julie Andrews once upon a time, has been revamped and re-imagined and mostly rewritten by Dick Scanlan—who wrote the lyrics for 4 songs in the original film—and Jeanine “Fun Home” Tesori, music—to become a jazzy, fizzy send-up of the clichés the original nurtured. The transformation proves that old standards can speak to new times when handled with wit and imagination.

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What hasn’t changed? The charm of the plucky though naïve and somewhat misguided heroine is very much key to how the show plays. Here, Taylor Quick, as Millie, looks great in her bobbed hairdo and period costumes and shows off the right mix of get-ahead smart cookie and hapless heroine. Millie gets most things wrong in the first act, but that’s part of the fun, and “Jimmy,” her stirring “I’m available” number right before the Act One curtain, bodes well for how much sharper she’ll be in Act Two as she knows who she really wants. This is a show with a learning curve and Act Two shifts into high gear to bring it all home, including a wonderful duet on a well-realized skyscraper ledge—“I Turned the Corner”—featuring Millie and Jimmy (Dan DeLuca, quite the able heart-throb). DeLuca plays well his self-possessed character’s joshing of the gal he can’t help falling for, and his “What Do I Need with Love?” is one of the high-points of Act One.

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The set, with lovely Art Deco features that look like they cost a bundle, is full of nimble changes—including a hotel corridor with elevator, a speakeasy, an upscale New York penthouse, the lobby and the laundryroom of the shady Hotel Priscilla, and, very efficiently effective, the offices of the Sincere Trust where Millie spends her day as a “stenog” and tries gamely to entrap her boss, Mr. Trevor Graydon (Edward Watts), an obtuse banker. His falling for slumming heiress Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm) is another high-point in Act Two as Watts and Sturm have voices that can pull heartstrings and a way with a song—the comic “Oh Sweet Mystery of Life”—that earns laughs. And the part of stern office manager Miss Flannery is more than ably handled by Lucia Spina.

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What has changed? The show plays up the “perils of Pauline” sub-plot of a “white slavery ring” with great panache, and if the idea of lurking, nefarious Asians seems a bit retrograde to you, have no fear. First of all, Mrs. Meers, the mastermind of the kidnapping, is played with great comic grasp of evil-doing by the redoutable Loretta Ables Sayre (who seems out to steal the show in Act One); her delivery of the tagline “so sad to be all alone in the world” is a memorable sound-byte, and her playing up of the clichés of “the dragon lady” is full of good fun.

Mrs. Meers’ henchmen have evolved far beyond the lackluster jokes they are in the film and have become key to the plot. They are working for Meers because of her threats to them, and have hopes of making it on the Great White Way themselves—and have the song-and-dance capabilities to prove it. What’s more, James Seol, as Ching Ho, and Christopher Shin, as Bun Foo, get to sing in Chinese, with subtitles, thus further dignifying their viewpoints. It’s a great touch and lifts these secondary characters from slapstick to straightmen. In fact, Ching Ho has a passionate attachment for Dorothy that might inspire a rooting interest in his amours.

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

And that’s to the good, because, with the shifting romantic factors at work here, we’re not sure who will end up with whom by show’s end. The only “loss” from the film is the scene where James Fox, who plays Jimmy, dons drag to infiltrate Mrs. Meers’ establishment. Here, the task is assigned to Muzzy von Hossmere, to give Ramona Keller something more to do than the hot cabaret numbers she handles with such easy aplomb. Keller plays Muzzy very tongue-in-cheek, which is a welcome change from Carol Channing’s ditzy jazz baby in the original. And the new version means a treat of a scene between Sayre and Keller as dueling would-be wool-pullers.

All in all, with its fabulous costumes, fast-changing scenery, engaging cast, and new plot points, the show has been thoroughly re-modernized for an audience that still likes to see obstacles in the way of love and wants its musicals tuneful and snappy with plenty of spirit and sharp as a tack dance ensembles. Goodspeed’s revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie—directed and choreographed by Denis Jones—is the cat’s meow!

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

 

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New Music by Jeanine Tesori
New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
From the original story and screenplay by Richard Morris

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Directed & Choreographed by Denis Jones

Scenic Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Gregory Gale; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Production Manager: R. Glen Grusmark; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Darien Crago, Caley Crawford, Dan DeLuca, Patrick Graver, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Ramona Keller, Emily Kelly, Daniel May, Evan Mayer, Elise Mestichelli, P.J. Palmer, Amelia Jo Parish, Taylor Quick, Loretta Ables Sayre, James Seol, Christopher Shin, Lucia Spina, Sherisse Springer, Samantha Sturm, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Amy Van Norstrand, Edward Watts, Darius Wright

Orchestra: Keyboard I/Conductor: Michael O’Flaherty; Keyboard II: William J. Thomas; Reeds: Liz Baker Smith; Violin: Karin Fagerburg; Trumpet: Peter Roe; Trombone: David Kayser; Percussion: Salvatore Ranniello. Alternates: Keyboard I/Conductor: William J. Thomas; Keyboard II: David Kidwell, Molly Sturges, Anthony Pandolfe; Reeds: Michael Schuster, Andrew Studenski; Violin; Diane Orson; Trumpet: Seth Bailey; Trombone: Matt Russo, Ben Griffin; Percussion: Dave Edricks

Goodspeed Musicals
From April 21-July 2, 2017