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Stunning “Fun Home”: A Musical Balance of Whimsey and Heartbreak

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in "Fun Home" at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in “Fun Home” at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

It is rare to say that one has seen a musical without a flaw – or at least a flaw that doesn’t serve the purpose of the work – yet that is what must be said of the musical “Fun Home,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre. The winner of 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the show is adapted from the award-winning, autobiographic graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. On stage, one watches the tale that Bechdel told in her book, while at the same time watching the artist wrestle with its creation. This all works with a wit and pathos which proves engaging from start to finish.

“Fun Home” (a family euphemism for the family business – a funeral home) is the story of Bechdel’s coming of age in a tiny Pennsylvania town, focused on two competing forces: her relationship with her autocratic, esthete of a father (whose life in the closet informs his connection with his family) and her coming to terms with her own lesbianism.

Utilizing three versions of Alison at the same time, it features the 43-year-old cartoonist Alison, the 19-year-old “Medium Alison” in her discovery-filled first year at Oberlin, and the 10-year-old “Small Alison” trying to figure out the hows and whys of her particular, peculiar world. These three, played quite brilliantly by a wry Kate Shindle, a wide-eyed Abby Corrigan and an extraordinary Alessandra Baldacchino respectively, center the piece in its convoluted but engrossing character studies as Alison bounces off the people who formed her understanding of self.

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from "Fun Home" [photo: Joan Marcus]

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from “Fun Home” [photo: Joan Marcus]


As musicals go, this one defies some of the usual conventions. The songs of Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music, and Lisa Kron, who wrote the lyrics as well as the book, prove organic to the tale itself, moving with ease from delightful silliness to deep introspection in ways which may not be immediately hummable but rather become emotional touchstones within the larger tale. In their lighter moments, the charm is radiant, as one realizes early on when Small Alison and her two smaller brothers (Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond) create their own ridiculously upbeat commercial for the funeral home, after being caught playing inside a casket.

In darker moments, they provide the vehicle for understanding the interior wrestlings of Alison’s parents, as they sing their inexpressibles. As her father, a popular local English teacher with an obsession for antiquities which extends to his museum-like restoration of their home, Robert Petkoff’s every move evokes subtle hints of the man’s internal struggles. Susan Moniz gives her mother, the ballast of this tense and exacting household, a particular form of rigidity rooted in both knowledge and anger.

As Alison’s college girlfriend, Karen Eilbacher moves with an ease which describes her comfortable self-knowledge, creating a door for Alison’s own. Robert Hager rounds out the cast, and underscores the father’s angst and sense of shame, as a series of separate and distinct young men who attract his illicit fancy. Which may give the impression that “Fun Home” is grim. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Though there are moments of deep sadness and guilt, this is essentially the story of self-discovery, and the joy to be found in being oneself.

Director Sam Gold keeps the thing fluid, as David Zinn’s costumes and sometimes minimalist sets make one able to look backward and forward at the show’s critical moments. Danny Mefford’s choreography utilizes the children’s gifts most remarkably, while Chris Fenwick’s musical supervision, and Micah Young’s musical direction of the onstage orchestra, links the real and the fantastical into a most satisfying whole.

“Fun Home” is, in the end, a whole-body experience. Played in 90 minutes, without intermission, its slow build keeps one enthralled until the shock and understanding of ending – one which tends to propel the watcher to his or her enthusiastic feet.

What: “Fun Home” When: Through April 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with added 2 p.m. performance March 30 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“The Sound of Music” at the Ahmanson Shines Like New

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’'s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’’s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Like most people of my generation, “The Sound of Music” has been a constant since childhood. I was taken to see the film during its first Hollywood run, complete with the Bill Baird puppets in the theater’s show window. Though generally not one to like a film of a Broadway show over the original, I admit to having been underwhelmed by the between 18 and 20 renditions of the original, stage version of the show I have seen since I hit adulthood. In my experience, that Broadway musical (including the “live” television production a couple of years ago) tends to lack the energy, romance and pathos which charged the later film.

Then came the new production just born at the Ahmanson, prior to an extensive national tour. The clearest metaphor I can come up with is that moment when an art curator cleans centuries of dirt and varnish off of a finely crafted painting: suddenly the thing looks bright and new. So does this venerable piece. And what a delight this metamorphosis is to watch.

The tale was adapted from the autobiography of Maria Von Trapp. As we all know, a young postulant named Maria is assigned from her abbey to become governess to the children of a distinguished and wealthy World War I naval officer. The Captain, his seven children, the wealthy and manipulative baroness interested in the Captain, the apolitical concert promoter, even the warmhearted housekeeper and nascent Nazis are all in place. The Rodgers and Hammerstein songs have become almost cliche they are so universally known, and the story’s underscore of love’s battle with self-focus and rising evil becomes remarkably fresh in this new rendition.

Of the many things this production does right, the absolute key is casting. Rather than going for big names who either don’t connect with each other or can’t get under the characters’ skins, this one goes for people who become organic to the story and create the elemental interconnection which makes the piece work so well.

Young Kerstin Anderson is Maria: radiating a genuine and unabashed innocence and enthusiasm which proves absolutely infectious. Ben Davis changes Captain Von Trapp from the usual frosty man in need of a dose of humanity into a deeply human but deeply hurt widower who has retreated into a world he can control. Thus, the life which bounds from him when he opens up makes the show shimmer.

Also importantly, the overtly privileged Baroness Schraeder and the charming but untrustworthy Max Detweiler, in the hands of Teri Hansen and Merwin Foard, bring back into focus the smarmy bits of the story: two people willing to adjust to invasion and domination as long as their own personal worlds remain afloat. Ashley Brown brings down the house as the Reverend Mother – finding humor and pathos in her unwieldy charge, and the need to referee among her larger flock. Darren Mathias and Donna Garner create rounded characters from the Captain’s servants, and Carey Rebecca Brown – as both the annoyed Sister Berthe and a surprised party guest – creates memorable moments in characters onstage for only short moments.

As for the children, they manage a genuine quality while singing and dancing like old pros. Most especially, Paige Silvester’s Liesl proves a breath of fresh air, as she makes the girl really look and act like a 16-year-old, rather than someone pretending to be that young. By contrast – and it is the only questionable casting in the piece – Dan Tracy’s Rolf may sing that he is 17, but he looks about 25, which gives a bit of a creepy undertone to his sequences with the young Liesl.

Still, to stop at casting would be to miss the totality which lies at the feet of director Jack O’Brien. It is he who has created the sense of ensemble and the flow of the piece. Indeed, his use of Douglas W. Schmidt’s fascinatingly mobile, modular set keeps the story moving in such a fluid way one is surprised time has flown so quickly. Costume designer Jane Greenwood seats her artistry clearly in both the period and the Austrian countryside, right down to the lederhosen (though Rolf’s don’t seem to fit quite right). Danny Mefford’s choreography manages the feel of the traditional without once becoming a copy of what one is used to.

In short, this “The Sound of Music” has tensions and realities left out of the filmed version. The Nazis are genuinely scary, and genuinely seductive to some of the characters. The threat to the Von Trapps, and even the tensions between the German military and the Gestapo lie just under the surface as the tale plays out. The songs have more of a point, and the innocent warmheartedness of Maria becomes both a healer and its own kind of threat to those who care only for themselves. And the singing is absolutely gorgeous.

So, go see “The Sound of Music,” as it will be unlike any other you have encountered, even for those of us who think we’ve seen it all. And then there are those for whom it is new. One of the evening’s most charming moments came as Maria is about to leave the Von Trapp family, and a patron in the row behind me, who had obviously never seen the thing before, began chanting under her breath, “Oh, don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” Admittedly, this is a classic American musical of the kind they don’t make anymore. But Oscar Hammerstein was in his own way the first to put social commentary into what had been up until then mostly musical entertainment. To see that highlighted again – for the first time in a long time – is a joy indeed.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through October 31, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, October 29 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $150 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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