Zach Johnson

Fun Home at Haddonfield Plays and Players

One knows it’s going to be an interesting evening of theatre when the title refers to a funeral home. Add to that a bildungsroman with the protagonist’s family imploding in the backdrop. This premise led me to anticipate a saturnine night of theatre. Fortunately, director Bill C. Fikaris along with the cast and crew also brought out the wit in Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic biographical piece. I attended the February 3rd performance at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Fun Home is Lisa Kron’s and Jeanine Tesori’s musical stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. It tells Ms. Bechdel’s journey of personal discovery. It chronicled her life from her upbringing in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, through her development as a cartoonist, and finally to her discovery of her lesbian sexuality. While reflecting on her life, Adult Alison (Maura Jarve) sought clues to help her understand her father. (Michael Sheldon) The latter lived as a closeted homosexual. He eventually committed suicide.

The show required three different performers to play Alison. Each one enacted the character at a different stage of her life. Gabrielle Werner played Small Alison, Courtney Bundens performed Medium Alison and Maura Jarve played Adult Alison; the character who also served as the narrator.

The story didn’t follow a linear time progression. The scenes flowed between the past and the present. Having three Alisons allowed the progressions to move seamlessly without confusing the audience.

I thought it interesting that all performers playing Alison looked alike. In one scene where Ms. Jarve and Ms. Wener shared the stage, they both maintained the same facial expressions. I credit them and Ms. Bundens for playing the same person at different stages of her life so believably. (Perhaps they’ll consider re-uniting for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women in a few years?)

Aside from the script itself, Fun Home contained multifarious components that made it a challenging spectacle to produce. It featured a range of musical material (directed by Chris Weed), elaborate dance routines (choreographed by Amanda Frederick) and sophisticated visual projections (designed by Pat DeFusco and Gary Werner). Even with all these elements, the group still produced the show flawlessly.

The musical pieces served as a good catharsis to offset the serious nature of the story. They contained a lot of the comedy. The Bechdel children decided to write a commercial for the family funeral home. The resulting “Come to the Fun Home” sounded like an upbeat Jackson Five-esque number. Gabrielle Werner, Zach Johnson and Jake Gilman even performed it like the Motown group. In keeping with the 70s pop theme, later Vinnie DeFilippo and the company joined together for a Partridge Family encomium in the form of “Raincoat of Love.”

Ms. Frederick’s choreography made these numbers much more entertaining. As did her coordination of the entire company for the opening number “It All Comes Back.” I enjoyed the cast’s proficient execution of the number’s myriad vocal harmonies.

The drama made its way into the musical numbers as well; especially at the end. Michael Sheldon’s duet with Maura Jarve on “Telephone Wire” was powerfully moving. Mr. Sheldon’s follow-up “Edges of the World” captured the character’s anger, frustration and turmoil. Sensitive theatregoers may have their dreams haunted by Megan Knowlton Balne’s rendition of “Days and Days.”

To facilitate the scene changes Fun Home included visual images projected on to the back drop. The roadside setting passing by added realism to “Telephone Wire.” The pictures of Ms. Bechdel’s actual drawings kept the story in perspective. I found the projections (and sound) of working televisions very creative as well.

In addition to all this, Fun Home included some extraordinary performances.

Michael Sheldon portrayed the tortured Bruce. In the fall of 2016 I watched Mr. Sheldon play the Mayor of Whoville in a production of Seussical at Burlington County Footlighters. Bruce was about as antithetical to a character speaking in cheery, rhyming couplets as one can imagine.

Mr. Sheldon met this role’s challenges. He gave his character depth when he played a devoted father opposite Young Alison (Ms. Werner). He became sly and manipulative in his scenes with Mr. DiFilippo. He released the character’s anger when performing with Ms. Balne. He showed himself to be emotionally lost when singing the “Telephone Wire” number with Ms. Jarve. The anguish came through his voice when he sang “Edges of the World.”

Megan Knowton Balne played his wife, Helen. She captured the seething rage the character kept suppressing. I most enjoyed her performance opposite Ms. Bundens. While holding a glass of wine she described when she first discovered her husband’s homosexuality. It occurred during their honeymoon. She related the story like someone ready to go ballistic, but managing to keep her composure. It proved an excellent segue into the “Days and Days” number.

Courtney Bundens portrayed the most entertaining version of Ms. Bechdel in the character of Medium Alison. I enjoyed the way she found humor in the character’s nervousness. Ms. Bundens and Julie Roberts exhibited great chemistry working together as Alison and she explored their feelings for one another. It made Ms. Bundens’ performance of “Changing My Major” the pivotal moment of the show.

This production of Fun Home contained an unusual feature. Some performers may have been acting, but I’ve never seen a show with that many left-handed people in the cast. It seemed like the stage contained more southpaws than all the pitching staffs of the National League East combined.

While I don’t share the same challenges my left-handed friends face, I do think of them every time I drive a car, turn a doorknob and use a can opener.

Director Bill C. Fikaris wrote in the playbill:

On the surface, Fun Home would seem like a tragic evening of theatre. However, the beauty of this piece is that it’s incredibly uplifting and provides us with a feeling of hope by the end of Alison’s journey.

With material this intricate, it’s a credit to the cast and crew that they could convey this message of optimism in the wake of such tragedy. Fun Home closes after February 16th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

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A Christmas Story at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players gave theatergoers an early Christmas present this year. The company opted to present the theatrical version of the beloved Holiday favorite A Christmas Story. They didn’t have to triple dog dare me to see this one. I attended the opening night performance on Friday, December 7.

Ralphie (played by Elliott Crosby) wanted just one thing for Christmas: (take a deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. To do so, he orchestrated a plan. He saturated his mom and dad with flyers in some unconventional places. For a school project he crafted an essay describing how much he hoped to receive one. He even asked the Santa at Higbee’s Department Store for it.

I’ll write what everyone reading this is thinking: a kid could put his eye out with that thing. Keep in mind this is theatre. It made for a good story.

Director Emily McHale, the cast and crew selected a very challenging show to perform. A Christmas Story isn’t just a classic: almost every scene in it is iconic. Who isn’t familiar with Flick and the pole, Dad and Ralphie changing the flat tire and the Old Man’s “major award”? It’s difficult to present something this popular without drawing comparisons to the original. Despite the hurdle Ms. McHale selected the perfect cast to achieve this task. They give this version a unique character.

Dan Safeer delivered exceptional narration. I last saw Mr. Safeer perform in Murder by Poe, also presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. In that show he delivered an impassioned rendition of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” from memory. The Old Ralph role took that premise to a higher level.

In addition to Ralphie’s quest for (take a deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock, A Christmas Story included several ancillary vignettes. Mr. Safeer’s character established the background for all of them. Some of these set-ups were quite verbose. The performer rendered them flawlessly.

Elliott Crosby brought the role of young Ralphie to the stage. He brought out the humor in the character’s quest for (take another deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock.

Playing Ralphie required a lot of range. Mr. Crosby displayed it. He became a strong straight man when Wesley Halloway (as Ralphie’s brother Randy) cried, “I have to go wee-wee!” He stuttered and trembled when performing opposite Ralphie’s love interest, Esther (played by Emma Scherz).

Pat DeFusco and Nicole DeRosa Lukatis complimented each other very well as the parents. They displayed witty interaction working together as The Old Man filled out the quiz to win a “major award.” They enacted a very witty “Battle of the Lamp” scene that would delight the film’s fans.

Mr. DeFusco’s gravelly voice well suited The Old Man’s persona. It enhanced his profanity implied jabberwocky. His subtle mannerisms got laughs, too. My favorite occurred through his expressions of dislike for Mother’s meatloaf.

Ms. Lukatis played a great contrast as the more realistic of the two parents. The performer showed Mother’s empathetic side when downplaying Raphie’s fight to The Old Man. She still brought out the humor in the character. Ms. Lukatis best did so during the famous scene where Mother placed a bar of soap in Ralphie’s mouth.

I’d credit Nell Watts (as Raphie’s teacher Miss Shields) for presenting the performance’s funniest moment. While marking papers with an oversized pencil she hollered about the importance of “MARGINS.” Upon reading Ralphie’s paper she abruptly shifted the character’s mood. Ms. Watts expressed immense enthusiasm over (take a deep breath again) his written request for a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. Ms. Watts danced about the stage and praised the paper with a distinct brand of farcical melodrama.

Performers Wesley Holloway, Zach Johnson, Kevin Stickel, Maddox Morfit-Tighe, Emma Scherz, Grazie Sokoloff, Logan Murphy, Novalee Seward, and Emma Scott completed the comical ensemble.

This Christmas I might not get a (take a deep breath one last time) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. Watching A Christmas Story at Haddonfield Plays and Players proved a much better gift. A Holiday show this entertaining can be as rare as Indiana snakes, gators and monsoons. It runs through December 22nd. If you don’t see it by then, you might as well be afflicted with soap poisoning.