Review: FANNY at Elysian Theatre

A one-night only punk musical about a classical composer

By: Mar. 01, 2024
Review: FANNY at Elysian Theatre
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In a new punk musical by Brian Heveron-Smith and Melissa Strype, the story of Fanny Mendelssohn is tragic but unfortunately predictable. The older sister of a household name in classical music is given her flowers as a prolific (and quite possibly) superior composer to her famous kid brother. The success of Fanny doesn’t lie in the nuance or perspective the straightforward script lends to this historical figure, but rather in the eclectic smattering of talents artfully gathered and showcased by the piece.

First and foremost, Sarah Lin Mitchell lends a bonafide punk aura and sound to the eponymous role. It is immediately clear that this punk musical is not messing around about the ‘punk’ bit— this is not the Geffen grappling for a younger audience, but a group of performers with the musical chops and feral energy to rock the rafters of the Elysian. Later, Rashawn Scott picks up and aptly carries the mantle as Fanny’s contemporary Clara Schumann nee Wieck, filling the space with an unruly sound that contrasts the more refined Broadway belt Scott showcases earlier in the performance. Both performers, alternately strumming the electric bass and wielding a microphone stand, carry off rockstar performances in period attire without resting on the juxtaposition as a gag. Genuine female rage is thus legitimized and realized amidst an otherwise delightfully silly evening.

The comedians highlighted by the piece are too numerous to individually praise, but the entire evening is full of belly laughs that deliver on the promise of a play within a comedy venue. As the Mendelssohn matriarch entrenched in the patriarchy, Jordan Lee Cohen steals every one of her scenes. Her delivery reeks of acidity and irony and the bonnet on her head seems at constant odds with her contemporary, flippant air. As Fanny’s inexplicably paper-hungry younger siblings, Meaghan Strickland and Jeff Murdoch are charmingly naive and edgily chaotic. Tim Lamphier’s lovestruck painter Hensel is deliciously cringey and joyfully hard to watch. In a small cameo as Meatalia, a French woman, Camirin Farmer packs a wonderfully anti-French je ne sai quoi.

Smartly placed cameos keep the pacing of the evening fresh and lively. In a brief turn as the Queen of England, renowned drag queen Meatball brings her signature glamour and campiness, flouncing daintily down the aisle and plopping herself on a chaise lounge. The crowd is palpably excited by her highly-anticipated entrance, and even in a brief scene, Meatball delivers on the promise of her reputation, garnering bawdy laughs before clicking her heels and flouncing back out of the theatre. I’m pretty sure Dame Judi Dench received an Oscar for giving an equivalent performance in Shakespeare in Love.

In the final moments, soprano Sondra Stowe performs a stunning ‘Ave Maria’ that immediately elicits gasps from the audience. Up to this moment, we have been enjoying an irreverently sarcastic performance, but to score Fanny’s death, the team has crafted a heartfelt tribute. The intentions of the performance are suddenly clear— these nerds really love Fanny Mendelssohn, they care about her music and her life’s work, and they’ve taken the time to proselytize about her unjust erasure from the musical canon. Without becoming didactic or superior or preachy, the show unearths the raw desire which fueled its creation. Somehow, with a disco ball spinning and a small fistful of musicians, Heveron-Smith and Strype conjure a fitting homage to Fanny Mendelssohn in the Elysian Theatre. It is loud and joyous and wild, but it pays sincere respect to its unsung heroine.

Photo credit: Tyler Davis