Reviews and Previews
Juliana Shumaker (Small Alison), Scott Esposito (Bruce), Tasha Brandt* (Alison) *Member, Actors’ Equity Association
📷 Every Angle Photography
Professional Equity House Theatre
Review by: Whitney Miller
Published: August 14, 2023
We live in a society more likely to dwell on our differences than to highlight that which connects us. It is a delight to encounter a piece that shows how similar we all can be. Raised in similar households, with family relationships anyone can relate to, shows like Fun Home help foster community and understanding.
Fun Home at Cain Park runs August 10th - August 27th. . This show is well written and hosts an array of talent that deserves packed houses. If you take nothing else from this article at least hear this: Go see it. Just bring tissues.
Fun Home is based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name and first opened off-Broadway in 2013. It revolves around Alison’s memories of her formative years, the bulk of which feature her complicated relationship with her father, Bruce (Scott Esposito). We see Alison struggling with how to depict this relationship as she writes her graphic novel. We watch Alison return to these glimpses of her relationship with Bruce in an attempt to find answers years after his sudden suicide. Alison’s mother Helen (Natalie Green) provides a heartbreaking perspective on Alison’s childhood that only a parent could. Three versions of Alison appear during the show: Small Alison (Juliana Shumaker), Medium Alison (Gabi Ilg), and Alison (Tasha Brandt). All three iterations provide a deep emotional snapshot of the character’s upbringing that instantly challenges the audience to maintain dry eyes as it evokes an array of emotions they may need therapy to help unpack.
Juliana Shumaker may be the youngest in the cast but her portrayal of Small Alison brings a nuance of someone much older. With her song “Ring of Keys”, we witness a young girl’s epiphany when she sees a lesbian at a diner proving to her that there are other ways to live your life apart from frilly dresses. Watching Small Alison’s reaction to this stranger living authentically in public struck a chord with many queer individuals in the audience. Gabi Ilg also has a subtlety to their work. Medium Alison is starting college and quickly realizes she has no interest in people of the opposite sex. While they bring a lot of humor to parts of the show, Ilg’s portrayal of Medium Alison is viscerally rooted in the all encompassing discomfort of being 18 and trying to figure out who you are. The joy, the stress, the heartache, and the pressure are constantly rising to the surface and not even your parents can help you navigate it.
Alison acts as a narrator, never leaving the stage as she watches her memories with all of us, trying to find answers in those memories and navigating them just as the audience is. Brandt brings a dry, deprecating comedic tone to the character that’s giving [[trauma]] and drives the audience to follow Alison’s journey with an initial lighthearted and entertaining viewpoint. As Brandt digs deeper she is able to bring the audience with her, developing that viewpoint as we move through time. While always visible to the audience, Alison’s adult self is the version of the character the audience knows the least. Brandt gives a heart-wrenching relatability to a character who is largely known for its younger versions This deliberate lack of familiarity forces the audience to fill the gaps with their own experiences and emotions creating a deeply personal experience for all.
Bruce and Helen’s relationship is brilliantly portrayed by Scott Esposito and Natalie Green. The constant battle each are fighting within themselves and with each other is outlined initially by the song “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue”. Helen’s almost stubborn dedication to keep the family looking “just so” makes for a great introduction for the audience to prepare for everything yet to be uncovered. Green brought a delicate but fierce performance to the character that worked beautifully next to a sea of dynamic performances. =
Scott Esposito gave one of the most profound performances I have seen of his, giving me emotional flashbacks to when he played Molina in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. He has a remarkable ability to embody characters with deep-seated internal battles. He keeps the audience so connected with Bruce’s journey that they seem to almost be breathing with him.
The set design and all of its intricacies was a masterpiece thanks to Trad A. Burns and Sarah May. The Bechdel home is critical to fully understand Bruce’s point of view and the environment the family is living in. Adam Ditzel took that design and enhanced it with his stunning lighting design. From the many lamps lighting the home adding beautiful depth, to the simple lighting that keeps narrator Alison separate from her memories, to Bruce’s final heartbreaking scene, the lighting was wildly successful.
Rounding out the family, Simon Keating and Jaiden Shauf-Dressman’s (Christian and John, respectively) whimsical rapport with Shumaker is a treat. This is especially true in the song “Come to the Fun Home”. Zoe Lewis-McLean’s Joan serves as the perfect coming of age girlfriend for Medium Alison. Many props to her rings. Danny Simpson subtly and expertly adds humor and emotional depth to the production with his portrayal of Bruce’s various romantic paramours, a feat considering the brevity of his scenes.
Joanna May Cullinan (Director) truly triumphs with this show. In her director’s note she mentions Fun Home was the first mainstream musical to feature a lesbian protagonist and be fully written by women, “As a bit of a rarity, it is also fragile and must be handled with great care”. Great care is exactly how she approached this story. The design details, the obvious collaboration, and the in-depth character building were focused on with great intention. She also states, “I urge you to connect the dots between your own story and this one and then pass that experience on.”
This show is able to navigate the complicated relationship between father and daughter. As Alison could never quite connect with her father for their shared identities, Fun Home gives the audience an open trajectory to connect to their own identities. When the world around us is trying to constantly push the queer population back decades, this show is a wonderful reminder that LGBTQIA+ voices are important and worth fighting for.
Professional Equity House Theatre
Review by: Neda Spears
Published: August 15, 2023
Sometimes the hype of a show can overshadow the enjoyment of a show, as I think may be the case with FUN HOME. Though it is not a necessarily well-known show outside the theater community, its reputation still holds some weight due to its association with the source inspiration- Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. The aforementioned hype was due to composer Jeanine Tesori & lyricist Lisa Kron being the first female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score. In the case of the production at Cain Park, the show outmatched the hype.
Director Joanna May Cullinan has assembled a literal pitch perfect cast for this show. Allison, a lesbian graphic artist (performed in an emotionally subtle, moving, heartbreaking track by Tasha Brandt) is the narrator of the story, looking back on her life and trying to reconcile her relationship with her closeted father, Bruce (performed by Scott Esposito, who once again delivers a fractured, flawed and wholly real character). Younger versions of herself are played at different stages: Small Alison, played by Juliana Shumaker, who delivers the song "Ring of Keys" (which relays her emotions at seeing her first butch lesbian) with a maturity beyond her years; and Medium Alison, played Gabi Ilg. Ilg's rendition of "Changing My Major" was a delight and a highlight of the evening, being exceedingly funny as well as vocally challenging and showed this young actress as a strong and vibrant performer who I hope will be seen in many more productions in the near future. Natalie Green as Helen is the suffering, patient mother, and though only has one song ("Days and Days"), never misses a step in her onstage moments in making this character as grounded as possible. Zoe Lewis plays Medium Allison's college girlfriend and fits perfectly into this world and this cast. Her presence in her scenes and her rapport with Ilg is palpable and wonderful. Danny Simpson (listed as Roy/Bobby Jeremy/Others in the program) made each of his iterations as varied and well-rounded as he could; they had to be as they are all essential to the story. Rounding out the cast were Simon Keating and Jaiden Shauf-Dressman, playing Allison's brothers Christian and John, respectively. Their performance of "Come to the Fun Home" with Shumaker had me wanting to give them accolades for a much longer time as their vocals were something to behold.
Caveats also to the orchestra, led by music director Rachel Woods. The music and vocal performances perfectly matched, with one never overshadowing the other (which means there should also be a mention of sound designer Angie Hayes).
There aren't many times that a performance of a show checks all the boxes and leaves an indelible mark that resonates long after the lights dim. This is one of those shows. Do yourself a favor and see it and support theater and these Cleveland actors.