Review: Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's FUN HOME at the Carrollwood Players

Runs thru April 2nd, 2023

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Don't let the title fool you. FUN HOME is a lot of things--gutsy, devastating, thought-provoking, exciting, resonating, painful, brilliant, triumphant--but fun isn't one of them. Or let me put it this's not "fun" in the conventional way that the word can imply--it's not lightweight entertainment, a throwaway good time, a sort of piffling and shallow delight. No, FUN HOME is a loving punch in the gut.

It's a musical that tells a poignant and pointed tale of two entities--a daughter and her father, both gay. The title FUN HOME is a shortened term for Funeral Home, and the show is one that becomes an unforgettable, indelible experience, one that haunts the viewer not just the morning after, but two mornings after and beyond. It was the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, and it's no accident that it won the Tony Award for Best Musical just before the Hamilton tsunami hit the U.S.

With music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron, FUN HOME is richly written, deeply sad at times, but in the end, tearfully uplifting. Structurally I've compare it to The Godfather, Part 2, which showcased two time periods--the rise of a Mafia father and the spiritual downfall of his son. In FUN HOME, based on Alison Bechdel's 2006 autobiographical graphic novel, the tables are turned: a repressed gay father, Bruce Bechdel, self-destructs in his sham marriage as his daughter, Alison, proudly ventures out of the closet and, thus, soars, becoming a successful cartoonist. It's a piercing, yet sympathetic view of a family in turmoil with a mystery always hanging over its head--why did the father ultimately kill himself while his daughter not only survived, but thrived, finding life's "perfect balance" in adulthood?

The answer, by the way, becomes clear: "To thine own self be true," as Polonius tells his son, Laertes, in Hamlet.

I was happily surprised that the Carrollwood Players, a community theatre, decided to tackle this important work. Then again, I saw their wondrous production of The Normal Heart over a year ago, so it shouldn't have surprised me that much. This community theatre is joining the ranks of local Mad Theatre in tackling tougher, more beautiful and enthralling works. For example, I love Neil Simon, but his plays are pretty easy for a community theatre to embrace. FUN HOME is a harder sell for audience members who have no idea what it's about, but it's also twenty times better and more memorable than most shows you see performed over and over at certain theaters (Michael Parker farces or the big, overdone musical du jour).

Say this for FUN HOME; you won't mistake it for Brigadoon.

Three performers portray the central role of Allison. Jess Glass plays the 43-year-old Alison, who also acts as our narrator. Alexa Rubenstein is the Medium Alison while Maisy Middleton plays the Small Alison (a girl roughly ten or so years old). The three of them are the heart and soul of the show, and they match up together well. If you don't know the musical, it may take a second or two to figure out that they are the same character in three separate time periods. But isn't that the way memories work for us--different periods of the past swirling around in our heads, sometimes coming together at the same time?

Derek Baxter has directed a real winner here.

The entire show rests on the shoulders of the multi-talented Jess Glass as Alison. She's astounding. Her facial expressions, her moments of sorrow or joy (sometimes at the same time), all must be conveyed. We feel all of her pain, her struggles, and in the end, we're with her all the way in her defiantly joyous butterfly-is-free liberation. She's onstage for pretty much the entire show, and she becomes our guide, our Virgil, into her family's descent into hell and her ultimate freeing and fleeing from this familial Hades. And the ending song when she comes together with the other versions of herself--the glorious "Flying Away (Finale)"--is sensational in its heart-tugging simplicity. The past and present coming together, true survivors, alive but not unaffected. Beautifully done by all. It's hard to stifle the tears here.

As Medium Alison, which explores the character's college years, Alexa Rubenstein is a fresh face who should make the stage her forever home. She became one of my favorites in the cast. She's so natural, that someone that our eyes naturally gravitate towards her no matter where she is onstage, and we sense all of the emotional levels of a young woman discovering who she really is. We understand the awkwardness, the yearning, and the ultimate euphoria of first love. Her sheer exuberance in discovering physical intimacy with another woman, showcased in the fabulous "Changing My Major," is spectacularly performed by Ms. Rubenstein.

Maisy Middleton, an 8th grader at Progress Village Middle School, is a revelation as Small Alison. "Ring of Keys" has been the most famous number from the show ever since Sydney Lucas performed it on the Tony Awards telecast eight years ago. And if you have attended a solo musical room in a Jr. Thespians festival, then chances are that you have probably heard it dozens of times. But young Ms. Middleton breathes new life into the song, which explores the moment when the young girl realizes her attraction to the same sex: "Your swagger and your bearing/And the just right clothes you're wearing/Your short hair and your dungarees/And your lace up boots/And your keys/Oh your ring of keys!" Ms. Middleton starts off slowly and builds, more and more exhilarated as she goes along, finally belting the final note. And her acting matches her singing; she's 100% committed, always in the moment, which is sometimes difficult for a performer so young. Her drama teachers should be very proud.

As the father, Jeff Slagle does something that's very hard in FUN HOME: He makes the character likable, at least early on. It's hard to sympathize with him, but Mr. Slagle brings out the warm moments early on, so when the character gets more and more strong-willed in his self-destruction, we remember who he once was (just as Alison does). But there are moments that make us cringe, like the instance he flirts with a guy as he slides rubber bands along phallic-shaped rolled-up posters. Even though Slagle's "Edges of the World," though powerful, didn't go to the next level that I would hope in his hands, he's exceptional in the role--one of the better actors currently in our area.

Culver Casson makes us care for Helen, the wife who knows her husband's secret and helplessly lets it happen for a variety of reasons. When she starts singing "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," I knew instantly that I was in the presence of greatness. And she did not disappoint. What a vocalist! In another moment, we understand her uncomfortable plight as she plays piano at the same time her husband tries seducing a student. Her "Days and Days," her wrenching confessional to Medium Alison, was off the charts.

As the apple of Medium Alison's eye, Joan, Laney Neville owns the stage. I recall them in the Carrollwood Players production of Cabaret in 2021, but nothing could prepare me for their daring work here. And Kodi Ernewein bravely dives into various roles, mostly playing the clandestine (or sometimes not-so-clandestine) "other guys" in Mr. Bechdel's life.

As the other quirky Bechdel children, Miles Worssell, who attends River Ridge Middle School's FAME Academy, is a hoot as Christian, Alison's older brother. And Elliott LeFloch, a third grader with Florida Virtual School, shows so much promise as the antsy John. All of the children are well-directed, shining with their own personalities; they're not just standing around waiting for the next line or song. I like how the boys play rock-paper-scissors at one moment. (For the record, the children's parts have been double-cast, and Jayden Garner plays Small Alison on alternating nights, with Gavin Garner as John and Charles Fite as Christian.)

In the children's big group number, "Come to the Fun Home," Small Alison along with her brothers make up a bopping, demented commercial about the family-run funeral parlor (the fun home). It's messy and fun and, to me, felt like a trippy Seventies song by the Partridge Family.

The Bechdel's in this production of FUN HOME feel like a real family, which makes the ending that much more heartbreaking.

Not all is perfect. Some of the vocals are all over the place, and since no microphones are being used in the intimate space, the (pre-recorded) music sometimes gets a little too loud. The lighting is passable for the most part, although I adore the lighting effects in the father's tragic final moments.

Musical director Gabe Flores gets some thrilling group harmonies from his performers, and Devon Bittinger's choreography is fun and brings out the family dynamics. Best of all, the cast has been directed with the sure hand of the visionary and ingenious Derek Baxter. He has created something rare and special that the entire cast and crew should be proud of.

It's a wonderful ride of a bumpy real-life story, painful at times and affirming at others, but always well worth your time and attention. If you want something more than just a frivolous "fun" at the theatre, then hurry to this captivating, searingly powerful production of FUN HOME at the Carrollwood Players. They do theatre right.

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