By Patricia Tobin
(534 words, 5-minute read)
Pangdemonium’s Fun Home is a musical based on the same-titled graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Set in Pennsylvania, Fun Home zigzags between forty-something lesbian cartoonist Alison, “young Alison” as a child, and “medium Alison” as a college student. Her father is an English teacher and director of a funeral home, which Alison and her family refer to as the “fun home”. Over the years, Alison discovers startling facts about her father, and is left with the legacy of a mystery that comes with his death. Fun Home’s non-linear plot lends itself to certain missteps by playwright Lisa Kron, whose writing samples the peaks and troughs of Alison’s life but spurns climax and resolution. As a result, Fun Home’s dramatic structure feels uneven and at times constrained, and this is best represented by Nikki Muller’s adult Alison, who acts as a narrator looking back on her own life. Muller is present in almost every scene, quietly watching over herself as a young child (Chloe Choo) or a teenager (Elena Wang)—but Muller occasionally breaks into song or a monologue, her role is largely restrained, and the rationale for her chiefly silent presence on stage is rarely clear.
Fun Home’s score, by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Lisa Kron, is enjoyable yet somewhat forgettable. There are the big snazzy numbers, such as the kids’ singalong tune ‘Come to the Fun Home’, and ‘Raincoat of Love’, a flashy homage to The Brady Bunch. These are lively and flamboyant, as opposed to the mellow ballads such as ‘Maps’ and ‘Days and Days’ that are more aligned with Fun Home’s heavier themes. The songs follow standard chord progressions to evoke familiarity and to counter their heavy emotional content—but they fail to inspire. ‘Maps’, for instance, has adult Alison drawing a circle on a map of her hometown that encompasses her father’s birthplace, home and the “spot where he died”. It is an eloquent, sorrowful message, but no tension is resolved during the song, and even the harmonic dissonances are safe, so that ‘Maps’ teaches us nothing new about Alison’s character, nothing revelatory about the play’s plot.
The principal standout in Fun Home is Elena Wang as teenage Alison. With her giddy, captivating naivete, she fizzes with the saccharine-sweet feeling of first love. Her gradual progression as a young adult coming to terms with her sexuality is enticing as well. Chloe Choo as young Alison is also an absolute delight, while Adrian Pang’s Bruce is distant and exacting. Fun Home’s production is also slick: Philip Engleheart’s multi-level set is aesthetically pleasing (it is simply fun to view whole rooms sliding on and off stage!), and James Tan’s lighting seamlessly distinguishes multiple timelines.
Fun Home ends with ‘Flying Away’, a medley by the three Alisons in which Tesori and Kron tick off the checkboxes for “last song: musical conclusion”. It is the only song which features all three Alisons, and it recycles repeated lines from previous songs to provide closure. It is the perfect example of Tesori and Kron’s frustratingly safe compositions which halfheartedly play at being fractured. For a musical that aims to break boundaries with its queer themes, Fun Home still favours predictability.
The Singapore premiere of Fun Home by Pangdemonium ran from 29 September to 15 October 2017 at the Drama Centre Theatre. This review is based on the performance on 1 October 2017 at 3pm.
Patricia Tobin is an arts writer from Singapore. She currently works in media. She tweets at @havesomepatty.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Matthew Lyon guides mentees Isaac Lim and Patricia Tobin in reviewing one performance a month from July to December 2017.