REVIEW: Succumb and Soar with ATEG’s “Fun Home”
All families are complicated, and the Bechdels more so than most. What’s extraordinary, however, is the way “Fun Home”, personal as it is, manages to show us truths about our own family dynamics: the ever-complex relationship of child and parent, and the hindsight in which an adult looks back on her childhood.
Told in three overlapping timelines, “Fun Home” is based on the Alison Bechdel-penned graphic novel about her childhood. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori created a master work that doesn’t only tug at the heartstrings, but holds up a mirror to the divide that exists between family members.
Alison at 43 (Cris Villonco) looks back at the story of her life, specifically her relationship with her father, Bruce (Eric Kunze). An early song explains the story completely, “My Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself.” With this early reveal of the Bechdel family’s secret, the story then becomes a beautiful, poignant discovery of self.
(READ: Come to the Fun Home)
As a child, young Alison (endearingly, charmingly played by Katie Bradshaw) spent most of her time in their big, beautiful house and the family’s funeral home. Eccentric though their life may be at times—for how many children busy themselves polishing silver or wiping caskets—they were, in her memory, a “typical family quintet” with a patriarchal father, a strict and firm mother (Lea Salonga) and two rambunctious brothers (Daniel Drilon and Noel Comia Jr.).
Her dad’s proclivities for the company of younger men (various characters played by Laurence Mossman) only existed in the periphery. In her eyes, he was an enigma. He was distant, and as such, she craved for his attention, affection, and approval.
Distant and unaffectionate as Bruce may be, he and Alison relate to each other in a way that’s different from the rest of their family. He sends her books and they talk art and literature. Now in college, Alison (an unrecognizable yet excellent Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante) falling in love for the first time with Joan (cookie-cutter performance by Yanah Laurel), comes to terms with her truth around the same time she learns about her father and everything her mother had to endure.
It’s a shattering of the family image she thought she had, but Alison, without judgment, yearns to connect and understand. In the show’s climax, Alison does not merely remember but relives her final moment with her dad. It transitions to Bruce, in his final, gut-wrenching number and comes back to Alison, alone and left with impressions of her father and that enduring, lasting image of her as a child, soaring above him.
Cris Villonco’s physical transformation (Costume design by Oz Go, and hair and make-up design by Johann dela Fuente) was noteworthy, as was her being on stage for the entirety of the show. While her emotional take on Alison reduced Bechdel’s innate humor, it did pay off during the latter part of the show so that when she speaks of her father “succumbing to a rare moment of physical contact” with her, it’s as if the pain and tragedy was raw and current instead of something that happened some 20 years past.
The two other Alisons were played by real-life sisters Katie Bradshaw and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, and this detail proved helpful especially in the finale where all Alisons share the stage. You can see the common thread between Small and Middle Alison that did make it seem like they’re versions of one person. Katie also performs crowd-favorite “Ring of Keys” with so much innocence, wonder, and earnestness that you’ll find yourself hopelessly endeared.
Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante stands out as one of the best performers in a show full of only strong actors. With her awkward and humorous naïveté, she had most of the show’s humor resting on her shoulders and she proved herself up to task. “Changing My Major” is definitely one of the show’s more unforgettable numbers.
Eric Kunze deftly played Bruce with restraint, mystery, and a charm that makes his duplicity believable and his tragedy all the more affecting. Ms. Lea Salonga, for her part as Helen, once again proves her ability to make any role iconic. Despite being on stage for only a handful of songs, she performs with an intensity that brought depth to her character and it culminates in the ballad, “Days and Days”, a number that has the same lasting impact as other Broadway songs she has famously performed throughout the years.
Director Bobby Garcia has put together an intense hour and forty-five minutes of musical theater that is packed with dizzying emotions and dazzling performances. One of the year’s best, it is not only an excellent experience but also an important story about love and family.
The show closes this weekend at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of the RCBC Plaza.