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Small Sizing Yields Big Rewards in DCP’s ‘Fun Home’

'Leaving Watermaine' set to premiere at Booth

Bailey Fischer as Small Alison in ‘Fun Home.’ (Photo by Sydney Schertz)

Across the way from the Gershwin Theatre, where Wicked has been running for over 20 years, you can find Circle in the Square, my favorite Broadway theater. 

At the other end of an underpass that connects the two venues — and two or three flights of stairs underground — you and 800+ patrons (less than half the Gershwin’s capacity) can have a theater-in-the-round experience in a space that’s like a wee oval basketball court or hockey rink.

I’ve seen seven different productions at this underground stadium since 1999, most unforgettably that year’s world premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Not About Nightingales and the visionary waterworld of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses in 2003.

Right now, two other Circle gems are playing in Metrolina revivals: Lombardi at the Lee Street Theatre in Salisbury and five-time Tony Award-winner Fun Home at the Armour Street Theatre in Davidson.

‘Fun Home’ is where the heart is

A couple of admirable versions of Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home have already run in the QC — a Broadway tour at Knight Theater and an Actor’s Theatre reprise on the Queens University campus — so the current Davidson Community Players production, directed by Danielle Melendez, has big shoes to fill. 

What strikes me most positively about DCP’s effort, however, is how small it is. If you’re sitting in the front row, as my wife Sue and I were last Saturday evening, some of the action will be right next to you. Or behind you.

From that vantage point, DCP is better than even the 2019 Actor’s Theatre production at Queens’ Hadley Theater in replicating the intimacy of the Circle in the Square experience.

Set designer Chip Decker, who stage directed the Hadley production during his years at the helm of ATC, retains his bright visual concept — a departure from the more funereal Broadway and touring versions — in depicting the Bechdel Funeral Home, allowing Alison Bechdel’s cartoons free play on the translucent windows of the parlor.

Often, they’re animated, with Bechdel’s words and drawings blooming before our eyes.

As we watch Lisa Kron’s adaptation of Bechdel’s graphic novel unfold, there’s a nice little studio perch set aside at stage right for the full-grown Alison to narrate. 

Sometimes as Alison, Kel Wright insinuates herself into the action, lurking in the main playing space, sketchbook in hand, as Small Alison and Middle Alison act out her vivid memories of growing up at a Pennsylvania funeral home and coming out as a lesbian at Oberlin College.

Kel Wright (left) and Ashby Blakely in ‘Fun Home.’ (Photo by Sydney Schertz)

The bright visual concept tracks better with Kron’s book, because darkness only gradually seeps into the story. Alison’s dad, Bruce, seems like a bookish, excessively neat and proper mortician at first, mainly because he and his dutiful wife Helen conspire to hush up his big secrets. 

When Small Alison and her brothers sing “Come to the Fun Home,” a faux commercial jingle for the funeral home, the childish glee is as contagious as an early Jackson 5 hit or something fresh from little Donny Osmond and his backups.

Bruce may discourage these boisterous outbursts, but he cannot suppress them. Similarly, when Small Alison wants to go to her school party in jeans and sweater, Bruce can temporarily impose his will by shaming his daughter into wearing a dress. 

It’s only in retrospect that we and the full-grown Alison realize that Bruce was mostly protecting himself, shielding the truth of his own sexuality rather than upholding propriety.

Ironically, the fulcrum begins to shift for Middle Alison at Oberlin College, where she discovers her own gayness. This is jubilantly proclaimed in “Changing My Major (to Joan),” a song that equals the joy of “Fun Home” and surpasses it in exuberant sensual comedy. 

Tesori is at her best in these chamber sized songs with their pop flavorings and their Avenue Q spice. Even at her peak in Caroline, or Change and Kimberly Akimbo, Tesori’s other acclaimed shows, there’s a little bit of Sesame Street mischief going on.

Having coped with Bruce’s escapades for decades, Helen understandably freaks out when her daughter informs her that she has come out. Alison can only see her mom’s distress through a haze of misperception. Yet we always like Alison because she not only observes herself and her family with her sketchbook, she perseveres on her path and eventually, if still hesitantly, confronts her problems.

Despite Dad’s disdain, she continues to opt for cartooning instead of “serious” art, continues to wears jeans instead of dresses. Faced with Joan’s advances, Middle Alison retreats … temporarily. She seems to hibernate and marinate after writing home about her gay epiphany, processing Dad’s puzzling evasiveness and Mom’s distress, but she elects to bring Joan home with her when she returns from Ohio on winter break.

Darkness falls gradually, but it falls hard.

Mortician, English teacher, preservationist, and molester of underage boys — there’s a lot to unpack, even for adults in the audience, as we try to understand and judge Bruce in the context of his times. 

Coming off his outré antics in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Ashby Blakely is as varied, complex, and nuanced as we’ve ever seen him as Bruce. At times, he roars in his tyrannical moments, overpowering the small house. Like all the other players, he’s miked, but thanks to Kathryn Harding’s exemplary sound design, there’s never any distortion, clipping or dropouts to mar the show or its music.

The one major sacrifice for theatergoing purists is the lack of a live orchestra at Armour Street. Nevertheless, Harding contrives a surround effect by channeling the prerecorded soundtrack and the amplified voices from the rear speakers. It was a pretty unique front-row experience for me, rather enjoyable.

After her exploits at Booth Playhouse as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Alison Rhinehardt had already convinced me that she could overpower Armour without a mic. As Helen, she predictably knocks her showpiece, “Days and Days,” out of the park with diva aplomb. Until then, she’s rather wholesome and humdrum, accentuating Mom’s breakout.

Read more: A Rendezvous With ‘Sunset Boulevard’ Diva Allison Rhinehardt

Nor is there any perceptible cratering when we scrutinize the less familiar names in this cast. 

Recently unveiling her directing chops in the Queen City Concerts premiere of Local Singles, Wright brings an exacting intensity to Alison that always captures the drama, even when she sings. In “Caption,” she keeps barking in Kron’s script, so her valuation of le mot juste always seems foremost as her castmates take care of the graphics.

As the Bechdel brothers, Aiden Honeycutt as John and Grayson Flowers as Christian help turn Small Alison’s “Fun Home” promo into an exhilarating panorama. Bailey Fischer takes flight almost from the first moment we see her as Small Alison — goodness, energy and precocity personified until her last “Flying Away” moment. 

Actors in 70s attire sing a song in Fun Home
Bart Copeland (left, foreground) and Bailey Fischer in ‘Fun Home.’ (Photo by Sydney Schertz)

That energy is formidable when Ann Schnabel must take over as Middle Alison, especially in the intimidating context of a matriculating college freshman. In a sense, then, her “Changing My Major” is as much a rebirth as it is an affirmation; it’s the needed embrace of the real world that will ultimately help her in coming to terms with the truth about Dad.

Criminal law is far more confident than my feelings in determining who the forbidden fruit is among the remaining cast. As the revelatory Joan, Sierra Key seems healthy enough, her seductiveness sufficiently muted for a Midwest coed. At school and visiting the funeral home, Key hits all the notes that emphasize Joan’s savoir-faire and discretion without pounding them. 

As the Bechdels’ handyman, Bart Copeland struts and preens enough to convince us that he’s also a consenting adult. 

When he switches roles and becomes a former student that Bruce picks up on his nocturnal rambles, Copeland calls upon the naivete that made his star turn as Pippin so compelling last spring at Theatre Charlotte. Topped with a mop-top wig, you’ll see he’s also a perfect fit for Tesori’s retro pop music.

Doubling the fun

Okay, so maybe you weren’t duly impressed that two shows that premiered at the same Broadway theater are now running in the Charlotte Metro. We can do better. Weirder. This coming weekend boasts two different shows set at a funeral parlor! 

Yes, as Fun Home continues for two more weekends up in Davidson, down here at Booth Playhouse, Charlotte Conservatory Theatre is bringing us the world premiere of Nan-Lynn Nelson’s Leaving Watermaine, directed by the playwright.

It opens on leap day this Thursday, at the tail-end of Black History Month, for a four-day run. By the end of Act 1, we’re greeted with a busy weave of plot threads involving undertaker Werly Mainlodge, his three daughters, and their beaus — both beloved or unwanted. Which of the three young ladies will be leaving first? Elopement or honeymoon? Will the Klan intervene on the eve of the planned departure?

Has there been a KKK lynching or a passionate murder? Or is the presumed victim still alive? Mystery, racism, colorism, and comedy peep into what seems like a tragedy, so you’ll need to stick around after intermission to learn how the dangling threads sort out.

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