Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month

Leslie Marberry Directs A Stellar Cast in Sold-Out Run of Tony Award-Winning Musical

By: Jun. 20, 2024
Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
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When asked why theater means so much to me, I always answer “its power to transform and to transport.” No matter the genre (straight plays, musicals, pantomimes, pageants, passion plays, revues or what-have-you), theater, i.e. live performance, can alter one’s outlook on life, bring a flood of memories rushing into your heart, it can persuade you, illuminate you, challenge long-held beliefs and provoke you. And it is that awesome power which separates theater from other art forms that so captivate me any time that I settle into a seat in a theater and the lights dim, and I find myself swept away to another place and time, my imagination  soars and I give myself over to the art being created before me. It is always the same and I am always hopeful and expectant of my world view, in fact my very being, to grow,, to change and to transform me into a better man.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Ayla Carlock, Ryan Greenawalt, Ryman Stanton, Katie
Bruno, Alex Hillaker and Delaney Amatrudo
as The Bechdels.

Over and over again, that has happened to me for the almost half a century during which I’ve been reviewing theater. No matter if it’s a play I have seen countless times, I find myself excited to witness a new take on a much-loved title or to find new and expressive meaning in something I know like the back of my hand. More importantly, I find that theater can elicit in me a profound response and cause me to recall people, places and memories that feed my very soul and inspire me in countless ways.

Case in point: Leslie Marberry’s inspired staging of Fun Home, currently ensconced at Nashville’s The Barbershop Theatre through June 29 as the finale ultimo of Street Theatre Company’s remarkable (and I can confidentlyproclaim “memorable, transformative and transportive”) 2023-24 season. Coming, as it does, during Pride Month, Fun Home is a powerful and authentic, provocative and heartfelt experience, guaranteed to deliver an ultimately exhilarating and hopeful message for audience members who open their hearts to the story being related.

With music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Lisa Kron, Fun Home is based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. I have known Bechdel and her work since 1987: as my late partner Stuart Bivin and I were planning to launch Dare, Tennessee’s first LGBTQ+ weekly newspaper (which later was renamed Query) in the spring of 1988, one of our first decisions was to include Bechdel’s comic strip – Dykes to Watch Out For – in the pages of our paper, which we knew would lend a certain coolness and gravitas to our mission of providing a sense of community to our heretofore largely underserved constituency. Bechdel would call every so often to ask how things were going, how our audiences were responding to Dykes…, and to offer endless support of our efforts to inform our readers.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Ayla Carlock as 'Small Alison"

Thus, long before the publication of her graphic novel and certainly before it became a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that I have subsequently seen on tour and in regional productions, I’ve been a fan of Alison Bechdel and an aficionado of her work as a cartoonist and author. I have personally experienced her grace and grit and her tremendous humanity and genuine candor. And from the very first moment I was made aware of Fun Home, the musical, I have loved the show and applauded its unique sensibilities and the sensitivity and honesty of how Bechdel’s personal story is articulated in Tesori and Kron’s exquisitely crafted musical, which I consider to be one of the finest examples of contemporary musical theater.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Maya Antoinette Riley and Jana Denning as 
'Medium Alison'

When it was announced more than a year ago that Marberry would be directing this already sold-out iteration of Fun Home, I’ve anticipated the show’s run, confident she would bring the show to life with vigor and finesse, its cast populated by the exemplary talents who do their compelling best to reinterpret the music and words on the pages of the published script. Even without knowing who the actors would be, I took heart that Marberry, musical director Randy Craft and choreographer Deonte Warren would select the right actor for their corresponding character.

Bechdel’s trademark directness remains intact in the musicalized version of her life story – the tale of a young woman embracing her own sexual orientation in a family that is fraught with tension, recriminations and truncated emotional growth that stems from her father’s tortured guilt brought on by his secret life. Bruce Bechdel is constantly living his life precariously balanced on the double-edged sword of closeted sexuality and the outward appearance of the settled family man, always in search of a furtive tryst with cute grocery store bagboys, young men hired to help with the never-ending tasks of restoring an aging house, and furtive sexual encounters with strangers in cars parked in out-of-the-way places, or in darkened corridors and daunting alleyways.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Delaney Amatrudo as 'Alison' and Ryan Greenawalt
as 'Bruce'

At the end of the show’s first musical number, Alison delivers the succinct thesis of her memoir: “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay and I was gay and he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

Kron’s script focuses on this overly dramatic, yet breathtakingly honest view of modern American family life by presenting Alison in three different and uniquely resonant epochs of her existence: 43-year-old Alison, played by a focused and confident Delaney Amatrudo, is struggling to write her memoir, recalling moments in her life, allowing audiences a somewhat voyeuristic vantage point, as she sees her younger self (or, more accurately, “selves”) experience sometimes mundane, yet oftentimes illuminating, moments during her formative years: Jana Denning is pitch-perfect as “medium Alison” as she is referred to in the show’s playbill, experiencing her first pangs of sexual awakening, romantic love and the duality of her father’s life, and Ayla Carlock skillfully plays the inquisitive small Alison, whose budding self-awareness and eagerness to understand the many vagaries of life on Maple Avenue.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Ryman Stanton, Ayla Carlock and Alex Hillaker

The three Alisons each offer her unique perspective that grants us access to the “Fun Home,” as Alison and her bothers John and Christian (winningly played by Alex Hillaker and Ryman Stanton, who shine particularly in the riotously fun “Come to the Fun Home”) refer to the family funeral home business in which they live, in order to provide the time stamps in Alison’s coming of age. The musical theater conceit of having three actors portray the same character is the ideal conduit through which to approach the complex family interrelationships that make Fun Home, the musical, so very compelling.

Finding three actors to play Alison is challenging, for sure, but kudos to Marberry for her casting choices (the entire cast of nine is impeccably chosen) who somehow manage to be completely believable, while nothing looking nothing alike (brunette wigs notwithstanding). The three actors work well together to create a smooth transition among the Alisons at whatever age she is in the moment happening before you on the stage. Alison is brought to life convincingly and seamlessly through some sort of theatrical alchemy which ensures that the biggest emotional wallop and thematic pay-off actually happens.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Delaney Amatrudo

Carlock’s performance of “Ring of Keys” (which is probably the best-known number in the show, thanks to the electrifying 2014 Tony Awards performance by Sydney Lucas) is delivered with passion and panache by the young actor who manages to elicit a sustained audience response. For Denning’s medium Alison, “Changing My Major” – sung in the afterglow of college freshman’s first sexual encounter with their more “evolved” lesbian girlfriend Joan (played by a startlingly versatile Maya Antoinette Riley) – gives them a similarly effective musical moment in which Alison is vibrantly alive and in the first throes of love.

Amatrudo’s poignant performance of “Telephone Wire,” in which she expresses a heartrending need to connect with her father to somehow offer the hope she is feeling as her authentic self to transfer, as if by magic, to the tragic figure of her father. Amatrudo’s Alison affords her a wonderful opportunity to show off her dramatic range as an actor and she elevates every moment onstage in which she is expressing herself through song. The stunning performance of “Flying Away” that gives the show its climactic finale, in which Amatrudo, Denning and Carlock are all featured, is staggering in its impact.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
"Raincoat of Love" featuring Grant Weathington
(at center) with Ayla Carlock

And I would be remiss – perhaps even committing an act of critical malfeasance or malpractice – if I didn’t mention the tremendous impact of seeing Delaney Amatrudo and Maya Antoinette Riley, both of whom grew up on Nashville stages, delivering such potently impressive performances in Fun Home. To be candid, I am inordinately proud of their theatrical achievements and personal growth, and I am gratified to watch them continue to learn and grow onstage and in real life.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Katie Bruno and Ryan Greenawalt

Ryan Greenawalt, who plays Bruce Bechdel, gives a multi-layered performance that is at once off-putting and eminently appealing, playful and frightening, as he utilizes all of his talents to present a shattering performance. Greenawalt, who can be charming one minute and terrifyingly cruel and menacing the next, is powerful throughout the show’s scant 90-minute running time, walking a fine line that only an experienced actor can do. Likewise, Katie Bruno is awe-inspiring as Helen Bechdel, the woman who gave up so much in life in order to be the seemingly perfect wife of a closeted gay man who resents her and treats her abhorrently. Her performance of “Days” is a distillation of the emotional and mental toll that life has taken on Helen, who tries to find solace as a local theater “star” after studying with Uta Hagen.

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Grant Weathington and Ryan Greenawalt

Grant Weathington, who starred in the Marberry-directed Ordinary Days last summer, is charming as all of the various young men who move in and out of Bruce’s life, and in doing so shows off his tremendous versatility.

Jim Manning designs the imaginative unit set that provides all the settings for Fun Home, which helps to transport theater-goers to other times and places, while Kristen Dubois’ lighting design is integral to the production’s elegantly transitioning scenes that ensures the audiences can keep up. Jacob Allen’s sound design is thoughtfully conceived and utilized throughout, while Melissa Durmon’s costumes effectively telegraph who these characters are and the timeline in which their lives unfold onstage.

Randy Craft’s offstage band (including Isaac Bouldin, Max Dvorin, Cameron Cleland, Brad Williamson and Thomas Altman) perform Tesori’s tuneful score with a pleasing combination of professionalism and passion. And Deonte Warren’s choreography lends a hint of showbiz razzle-dazzle in both “Come to the Fun Home” and “Raincoat of Love.”

Review: Street Theatre Company's FUN HOME Delivers Artistry for Pride Month
Ryan Greenawalt

I only wish I could wave my magic wand and somehow create more seating and more performances of Street Theatre Company’s Fun Home, but unfortunately that is not among my special powers (today, at least). You can, however, keep eyes and ears open in the unlikely event any tickets go unclaimed and you manage to gain the unequaled pleasure of watching the perfect blend of actors and material result in the creation of art, however ephemeral it may be.

Fun Home. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Based upon the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Directed by Leslie Marberry. Musical direction by Randy Craft. Choreography by Deonte Warren. Stage managed by Maya Denning. Presented by Street Theatre Company at The Barbershop Theater, Nashville. Through Saturday, June 29. Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Production photos by Andrew Allen Morton.


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