MANILA — The Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home” made its international debut on Thursday with a well-earned and emotional standing ovation for the amazing cast at the RCBC Plaza in Makati.
Although the marketing focused more on the return of Broadway star Lea Salonga to Philippine musical theater six years since she played Grizabella in a touring production of “Cats” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, there is so much more to look forward to in this latest offering from Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group.
In fact, Salonga doesn’t even have the central role here; instead, she plays the mother of lead character Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel memoir was the basis for this family drama. Alison is played primarily by Cris Villonco, who is onstage for the entire duration of this 100-minute musical (perfomed without intermission), as well as by Katie Bradshaw and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, who play the cartoonist as a 9-year-old and a 19-year-old college freshman, respectively.
Alison’s main source of conflict isn’t even with her mother but her father Bruce, who teaches English, restores old houses and likes to have things in order. Their complicated relationship is communicated to the audience early on when Alison confesses: “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.”
The story is told through Alison’s recollections as a 43-year-old artist working on her memoirs, as she sifts through old diary entries and antique pieces from her old Victorian residence-cum-funeral home (hence, the title), where she grew up with her two brothers.
As kids, they don’t seem to mind this quirky setup and they even create a live commercial to promote the family business, “Come to the Fun House,” which was exuberantly performed by the musical’s young actors — Bradshaw, Daniel Drilon and former “The Voice Kids” contestant Noel Comia.
But it’s not all fun and games at the Bechdel home. Certain details and episodes now play out for Alison — as well as the audience — more clearly as they provide hints on Bruce’s secret life and attraction to young hunky boys.
“Fun Home” is a poignant coming to terms drama about the torturous relationship between parent and child told with so much feeling that it’s hard not to be driven to tears at some point in this remarkably heartfelt musical.
But it’s also a refreshing coming of age tale about coming out. Two wonderful solo numbers capture the joys of puppy love: there’s “Ring of Keys” sung to innocent perfection by the younger Bradshaw as an ode to the first butch lesbian she ever saw; and the even more glorious “Changing My Major” sung by the college-aged Alison smitten by her first same-sex relationship with gay activist Joan (faultlessly played by Yannah Laurel).
Bradshaw-Volante, the wife of actor-singer Nyoy Volante, has been a consistently solid performer since her breakthrough in “Carrie,” with memorable supporting turns in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Jersey Boys.” In “Fun Home,” she gives her best performance to date as the awkward 19-year-old struggling with her own identity only to be devastated by the revelation that her own father is a closet homosexual.
Villonco, in a heartbreaking performance, carries this devastation throughout the musical, as she peers through her past, often using only her expressive face to suggest the wave of emotions inside her.
Her solo “Telephone Wire” about the pall of what’s unsaid between Alison and her father during that ill-fated drive dramatically captured the inner turmoil that Villonco lugs with her even after the curtain call.
It is these inner workings brought out by the affecting, quivering and beautiful music by Jeanine Tesori (with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron) that give “Fun Home” an intimate poignancy that is increasingly becoming rare in musical theater.
Just as he did with last year’s affecting “The Bridges of Madison County,” director Bobby Garcia gives “Fun Home” a sure-handed yet unobtrusive staging that allows the musical’s incandescent beauty to effortlessly shine and his multinational cast to do what they do best.
Broadway veteran Eric Kunze nails the difficult role of Bruce with charm, ambiguity and just the right amount of menace and pomposity as he grapples with his obsession with outward order and his own secret longings.
Salonga, who played Eponine to Kunze’s Marius in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, actually doesn’t have as much stage time in “Fun Home” as the marketing materials would like to suggest. But it does provide her with a role that fully harnesses her maturity as an artist post-“Miss Saigon.”
She delivers a finely tuned performance, utilizing her prodigious stage presence to provide the cold and dark shadings to erstwhile peppy scenes with her subtle stares and held back emotions.
More importantly, she is given that one 11 o’clock ballad, the melancholic “Days by Days,” in which she finally lets go of all the resentment and repressed anger of a woman stuck in a marriage built on a lie. Yet there is dignity in her breakdown as she comes clean to her daughter and Salonga pulls it off with such clarity, both musically and emotionally, that it’s difficult not to be moved.
“Fun Home” may not be that enjoyable pick-me-upper we look for in these confusing times but it is undeniably moving, piercing through our core, and performed by an incredibly talented ensemble.
It promises a good cry — and you’d be thankful for it.
“Fun Home” runs until November 27 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City.