Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Fun Home
Spotlight Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Bright Colors and Bold Patterns and Into the Woods

Alyssa Armstrong, Anand Khalsa, and Ava Newton
Photo by Robert Waller
Memory plays, in which an older version of a character looks back on the events that shaped their lives, are some of my favorites. A recent example of this type of play is the 2015 Tony Awards Best Musical Fun Home, which is based on Alison Bechdel's 2006 autobiographical graphic memoir "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic." This intense, yet also at times funny, family drama centers on the coming out of the story's central lesbian character and the suicide of her closeted gay father, while the older version of the character looks back to see if she can find a connection between those two events.

With an excellent cast, flawless direction, and impressive creative aspects, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production is perfect. If you're thinking, "Wait, what? A youth theatre doing a show with adult topics such as homosexuality and suicide?," you can rest easy. In the gifted hands of director Kenny Grossman the story soars, without any of the adult subject material being watered down, and the cast, made up mostly of older teenagers, are delivering portrayals that are sensitive and full of truth. The three actors playing the adult characters are giving performances equal to ones I've seen from actors twice their age.

The musical uses an interesting concept to turn the graphic novel into a musical. It begins with the 43-year-old Alison looking back at key moments in her life as she uses these events to draw them as cartoon panels. It's interesting because, one would imagine it's exactly what the real Bechdel would have done when she looked back at her life and drew the panels for the graphic novel the musical is based on. The show also uses three actresses who play Alison at three different ages and sometimes all three are present on stage. This works very well for a memory play, as the older character looks back at different times in their past.

The musical also makes us aware by the end of the opening song that both Alison and her father are gay and that he killed himself. In doing so, it sets in motion a fact-finding mission for both the present-day Alison and the audience to determine if her coming out had anything to do with her father's death. As Alison looks back and pieces together the events in her memories, we see her at two impressionable ages. First, there is Alison at aged ten, who prefers not to wear dresses or put a barrette in her hair and who has her first moment when she notices that she isn't like most other girls her age when she sees a butch delivery woman and realizes that she and this woman have much in common, though she doesn't quite understand what it is. Second, there is the college-aged Alison who comes out while also desperately trying to find a way to connect with her parents, especially her father.

The musical's book by Lisa Kron is rich in realism and honesty in how it depicts the difficult conversations that some children and parents have, the desperate need to connect with a father who isn't always emotionally available, and how one's acceptance of their sexuality can be a happy awakening or something they struggle with. Kron also expertly weaves together the three different ages of Alison into a cohesive whole while also creating emotionally rich, three-dimensional characters and a highly accessible work about self-discovery, acceptance, and coming to terms with events in your past. Jeanine Tesori's music soars and Kron's lyrics are succinct and descriptive in their relevance, with a beautiful use of ordinary items like rings of keys and lace-up boots to immediately create images in our minds.

Kenny Grossman excels in directing young actors with challenging and grown-up material and his direction here is simply superb. The nuance and depth the cast bring to their roles is excellent. The small Spotlight space heightens an emotional connection to the story for the audience and the characters, which deepens the impact of the plot and the emotional journey each character takes into one that is filled with heartbreak as well as moments of humor. Grossman's staging provides a clarity to the story so the overlapping time periods shift and flow together seamlessly.

Alyssa Armstrong is appropriately direct and inquisitive as the older Alison. She is on stage for almost the entire show and her delivery of the narration provides observations, insight and discovery. There is just one moment when she enters into the story, the haunting song "Telephone Wire," and Armstrong's facial expressions, body language, and vocal delivery beautifully depict a young woman trying to find a connection with her father. As Alison's parents Helen and Bruce, Anand Khalsa and Olivia Pratt skillfully allow the audience to see the pain and suffering beneath their steady exteriors. Khalsa's final song, "Edges of the World," clearly shows the demons Bruce has been dealing with for his whole adult life, and Pratt's solo, "Days and Days," is a stunning heartbreaker detailing how Helen's daily family responsibilities caused her to basically disappear.

Emma Gass and Ava Newton are equally as good as the two younger versions of the main character. Gass' solo, "Changing My Major," is a sweet, comical song of self-discovery, while Newton's solo, "Ring of Keys," is thrilling in how Newton perfectly evokes a girl who doesn't quite know the words to describe exactly what she's feeling. All five of these actors are giving performances that are moving, rich, and fully developed. In smaller parts, Lyda Armistead and Josh Pike are very good as the woman Alison meets in college and the various men Alison's father encounters, respectively. (At the performance I attended, Armistead took ill half way into the show and Sabina Dart seamlessly took over the role). As Alison's brothers, William Richardson and Jaxyn Damasco hold their own effortlessly against the older cast members and have wonderful stage presence.

Bobby Sample and Grossman's gorgeous set design uses cartoon panels to depict the walls of the Bechdel home. The music direction by Adam Bei is spotless, as is his direction of the small onstage band. Falin Ossipinsky provides some fun, upbeat choreography. Heather Riddle's costume designs and the hair and make-up designs by Charlie Rabago perfectly depict the three different time periods in the piece. The lighting and sound design by Anthony Rozzen creates some impressive stage images and provides clarity in the lyrics and dialogue.

Fun Home is a musical about self-discovery and trying to decipher how events in the past impacted others. It may be a difficult story to watch, but it's also full of hope, understanding and acceptance. Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of this Tony-winning musical is simply excellent.

Spotlight Youth Theatre requires all patrons and performers to wear a face mask for the duration of the time they are inside their building.

Fun Home runs through October 3, 2021, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N. 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. Tickets and information can be found at or by calling 602-843-8318.

Director: Kenny Grossman
Choreography: Falin Ossipinsky
Musical Director: Adam Bei
Assistant Director: Jack Taylor
Costume Design: Heather Riddle
Hair and Make-Up: Charlie Rabago
Set Design: Bobby Sample and Kenny Grossman
Lighting & Sound Design: Anthony Rozzen
Property Design: Vicki and Kenny Grossman

Alison: Alyssa Armstrong
Medium Alison: Emma Gass
Small Alison: Ava Newton
Bruce Bechdel: Anand Khalsa
Helen Bechdel: Olivia Pratt
Christian Bechdel: William Richardson
John Bechdel: Jaxyn Damasco
Joan: Lyda Armistead / Sabina Dart
Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby/Jeremy: Josh Pike