Review: 'Fun Home' is a joyful exploration of sexual identity

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In the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical "Fun Home," Cris Villonco takes on the role of 43-year-old cartoonist Alison, who’s in the middle of drawing in scenes from her youth. Photo courtesy of ATLANTIS THEATRICAL ENTERTAINMENT GROUP

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There will be those who will line up to see “Fun Home,” waiting to be wowed by Lea Salonga. And, without a doubt, they will be awed. But there is much more to the play than Salonga’s performance. Audiences will leave the theater with either puffy eyes or a tune stuck in their heads.

“Fun Home,” the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical — staged by the Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group — is on its limited repeat run until March 19 at the RCBC Theater. The memoir, based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name, explores how Bechdel came to terms with her own sexuality while unraveling her father’s deepest and darkest secrets.

Cris Villonco takes on the role of 43-year-old cartoonist Alison, who’s in the middle of drawing scenes from her youth. She makes use of totems, such as her father’s vintage trinkets and her old journal, to sharpen the details of her fuzzy memory. As the flashbacks come into focus, so do her old selves. There is small Alison (Katie Bradshaw), the 9-year-old version of herself who’s needy for her father’s attention, and teenage Alison (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante), her 19-year-old college self, seeking her father’s approval of her newfound lesbianism.

As each of the Alisons share a piece of their collective story, we soon realize that the titular home is not as fun as it seems. It’s merely a façade created by their perfectionist father, Bruce (Eric Kunze), who hides his own homosexuality (and sexual escapades with much younger men) behind the image of their seemingly well-adjusted family. Holding it all together is Helen (Salonga), his passive wife, who continuously endures her husband’s infidelity and turbulent mood swings in silence.

Everything begins unraveling as Alison tries to force the truth out of her dad. Her memories get more vivid as she gets closer and closer to an event she herself would like to relive and rewrite.

lea salonga in fun home.JPG Helen Bechdel (Lea Salonga) and little Alison Bechdel (Katie Bradshaw). Salonga plays a passive wife who continuously endures her husband’s infidelity and turbulent mood swings in silence. Photo courtesy of ATLANTIS THEATRICAL ENTERTAINMENT GROUP

For a staging outside of Broadway, Bobby Garcia’s version of “Fun Home” keeps it simple. Maybe due to the venue’s limitations, Garcia and his set designers do away with the trap doors utilized in the Broadway version and replace them with moveable sets, which the cast themselves push in and out of view. The choreography of it all is seamless. And the blocking of the set pieces maximizes what tiny space the actors have on stage.

There are evident faults with the lighting — sometimes cast members are obscured in shadows when they shouldn’t be —  but it’s a negligible little detail considering how each of the cast members still manages to grab the audience’s attention when they sing or speak.

Salonga, as usual, shines regardless of how little stage time she has. She earnestly sings her lines with measured restraint, not once tempted to go into hysterics as many are prone to doing given such material. Her rendition of “Days and Days” is a masterclass in musical theater, ushering in the emotionally charged final scenes of the play.

Kunze — who previously worked with Salonga on “Les Misérables” — is a very effective Bruce. He does much of the heavy lifting with ease, connecting with each of the Alisons at levels that are required for each stage of her life. His gradual downward spiral as Bruce makes a good counterpoint for his daughter’s blossoming.

As for the Alisons, the Bradshaw sisters are a delight to watch and listen to. Each has her shining moment. First is Mikkie with her hilariously giddy delivery of “Changing My Major” after solidifying her new lesbian status by spending a night with Joan (Yanah Laurel). Katie’s turn came in “Ring of Keys” as her identity is awakened by an image of a butch delivery girl.

IMG_1334.JPG Eric Kunze's (right) gradual downward spiral as Bruce makes a good counterpoint for his daughter’s (played by Cris Vollonco) blossoming. Photo courtesy of ATLANTIS THEATRICAL ENTERTAINMENT GROUP

Katie fuses her Alison with youthful spunk and makes the character very endearing. Mikkie, on the other hand, takes on the challenge of bridging the naiveté of small Alison with the wistfulness and wisdom of her older self. She manages to do so without breaking a sweat. Of the three Alisons, she is hands down the best and most memorable. Villonco’s Alison feels a little disjointed compared to the two. Perhaps this can be attributed to the sisters’ working dynamic with each other. Villonco isn’t able to mesh with them that easily.

Despite it being generally sobering, what with the subject matter being tackled, the 100-minute musical is never really drab. Although a number of scenes will coax a tear or two from its viewers, they are interspersed with moments of pure joy. The younger Alisons’ solos are definite highs, and “Come to the Fun Home” — as performed by the Bechdel siblings (Katie Bradshaw, Teddy Velasco, and Noel Comia, Jr.) — is a happy, catchy tune that the audience will ultimately hum to.

***

“Fun Home” runs until March 19 at 8 p.m. on weekdays, and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weekends, at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, 4th Floor, RCBC Plaza, Ayala Ave., cor. Gil Puyat Ave. Makati City. Tickets are available at TicketWorld.