Review: Fun Home by Pangdemonium
In 2006, Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel released a graphic novel memoir of her life. That book was Fun Home, and has since gone on to garner a huge fan following, as it traces Bechdel’s life growing up in rural Pennsylvania, focusing on the relationships she shared with her family, and her own journey of coming to terms with her sexuality.
That book of course, has since been adapted into a Tony-Award winning musical of the same name, written by Lisa Kron and with music by Jeanine Tesori. It makes complete sense for Pangdemonium to stage a production of it as the final show to round off their 2017 season, following a year of shows that’ve depicted alternate takes on family and the second one to feature a queer storyline at its forefront (after Joel Tan’s Tango), and with no shortage of onstage talent, Pangdemonium’s production of Fun Home is a brilliant adaptation of the show from its Broadway roots.
Much like the novel’s non-linear narrative, Fun Home frames its narrative by opening in the present with adult Alison (Nikki Muller) working on her memoir, piecing together the book page by page as she goes through her memories of her childhood in the eponymous ‘Fun Home’ (short for funeral home) and her college days discovering and coming to terms with her sexuality, only a few months before her father loses his life to an accident. Fun Home then, is a musical that in itself is queer in its narrative; after all, the audience already knows that Alison grows up to become a lesbian cartoonist and that her father dies. But the magic of the musical lies in its exploration of the process by which Alison’s life has been shaped, and the unresolved, tenuous relationship with her father she’s felt all these years, the chance to connect lost forever once he passes.
Pangdemonium has done a perfect job of casting the three women playing the three stages in Bechdel’s life. Chloe Choo as Small Alison in her childhood is given one of the more heavy roles for children in musical history, taking centrestage in more than a few songs despite being surrounded by a mostly adult cast, and Chloe does a remarkable job of capturing Alison’s innocence in her youth – a wide-eyed and hopeful, yet strong-willed child. Her take on ‘Ring of Keys’ soars with confidence, the joy of a young girl discovering beauty in a butch, and a familiar scene to anyone who remembers their own sexual awakening.
Elena Wang is an incredibly talented musical theatre actress, and in Fun Home, takes on the role of the awkward teenage years of Alison during college. Her movements panicked and nervous in front of her first love Joan (Gail Belmonte, in her theatre debut), Medium Alison, in Elena’s hands, becomes an incredibly endearing ingenue, best seen in her take on ‘Changing My Major’, leading to plenty of laughs from the audience chuckling at her ungainly metaphors after her first sexual experience, and also impressive applause at the crisp, clear quality of her voice.
Finally, Nikki Muller’s lines mostly consist of her panicking over coming up with the perfect caption for her pictures, but her voice, compared to her previous two incarnations in her youth, crackles with a new assurance in her own identity that comes with age. Essentially spending most of the musical perched at her writing desk above the set, Muller feels almost like an unsure god as she figures out which memories to depict in the memoir, and her face shifts between showing the frustration of a writer with a creative block, to sheer joy when she discovers the best way to paint her family. In the emotional and relatable ‘Telephone Wire’, Nikki is at the height of her anxiety as she recalls the last time she sees her father before his death, and brings out the full regret of the song, realizing that there was so much more she could do, but in her youth, remained paralyzed with doubt, with more than a few tears shed in the audience at her dazzling, heartwrenching performance.
At this stage of his career, Adrian Pang can confidently play just about any father figure, and he truly makes Bruce Bechdel into his own character. Through Alison’s eyes, Bruce is framed as a multi-faceted, complicated father, at times tyrannical with rage, at others, charmingly debonair with his fancy words and literature. Adrian draws out each of these nuances in his performance, and one is often left torn as to how to feel about him – do we condemn him for years of causing pain to his long-suffering wife Helen (Monique Wilson), while sleeping around with attractive young men (played by Benjamin Kheng, at one point clothed in denim hotpants)? Or do we sympathize with him as a victim of circumstance and living in a closeted world? Either way, Adrian brings to Fun Home a brilliant take on an estranged father figure, who, over the course of the show, he shapes into a full fledged, three dimensional character with his own tumultuous, intricate history.
Of course, we can’t get through this review without talking about the eponymous fun home itself. The Bechdel mansion, designed by Philip Engleheart, is huge and imposing, rising up to the stage’s ceiling with wallpapered panels and distinguished looking furniture, including a huge grand piano. There are countless entrances and exits designed into the set, with characters coming and going from and into doors that will surprise you with their presence even towards the end of the show. There’s a complexity and gravitas to the entire house that lends these same characteristics to the atmosphere of the musical itself. James Tan’s lighting also helps contribute to the grandiosity of the house, and it’s details like the flashes of the television screen on the children’s faces at night, or the silhouette of the window panes as the sun sets that lends a believability to the world of Fun Home.
Finally, despite its overall serious nature, Fun Home also includes a couple of fun numbers that allow choreographer Andy Benjamin Cai to come up with moves that transport audiences straight back to the 70s. One can’t help but smile at the children’s ‘Welcome to the Fun Home’, which oozes with the enthusiasm of kids having fun, and exudes the feel of a lively mambo night. We get an even bigger throwback when the entire cast takes part in a dream-like dance sequence in ‘Raincoat of Love’ (led by Benjamin Kheng) – an over the top number with technicolour lights and dazzling costumes that provide a much needed break from the emotional weight of the story.
Fun Home shows Pangdemonium at the height of their status as one of Singapore’s premiere theatre companies, once again pushing boundaries with their bold choice of play and slick production quality. Fun Home is a musical that will stun you with its portrayal of a dysfunctional family and growing up different that surprises with countless familiar moments, reaching fever pitch when it hits you hard with its many emotional high points. Undoubtedly one of our top picks of 2017, Fun Home is a must watch for anyone who’s ever felt alone in being different or has gone through a loss, and as always, brims with a big heart and a vital social message that comes perfectly packaged in this relatable and spectacular musical to end off Pangdemonium’s 2017 season.
Photo Credit: Pangdemonium
Performance attended 30/9/17 (Matinee)
Fun Home (R18) plays at the Drama Centre Theatre from 29th September – 15th October 2017. Tickets available from SISTIC
If you enjoyed Fun Home, be sure to check out Pangdemonium’s 2018 Season as well, now available to purchase as a Season Ticket on SISTIC. Look out for our upcoming full preview of it, and of course, stick with us for reviews of the shows when they premiere!