Fuzzy pains and joys of being a family

(From left) Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang and Bjorn Haakenson bopped atop caskets in the tender and real Fun Home.
(From left) Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang and Bjorn Haakenson bopped atop caskets in the tender and real Fun Home.PHOTO: PANGDEMONIUM!

REVIEW / THEATRE

FUN HOME

Pangdemonium!/Drama Centre/ Last Saturday

Nothing is as it seems in this musical by Lisa Kron based on American cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic novel about growing up with a gay father, an ensuing long-suffering mother, their fierce closed-door spats, her two equable brothers and coming to terms with her sexuality.

From a young age, her loving yet despotic father Bruce - who, perhaps confusingly, calls her "Al" - forces her to shun trousers for dresses, pull her hair back in a barrette and, with her siblings, keep their museum-like house spotless.

The "fun" in Fun Home is short for "funeral", as her dad is an undertaker as well as a literature-loving high school teacher who restores old homes as a hobby. For harmless fun and perhaps to rebel against Bruce, his children sometimes clamber in and out of caskets and bop atop these.

But then cracks in the surface of life is what makes living real - and that, ultimately, is why this show is a runaway hit, to which ever-intuitive director Tracie Pang and her assured cast and crew nailed the fuzzy pains and joys of being a family.

Nikki Muller seemed largely curt and cursory as the 43-year-old Bechdel, mellowing only whenever she broke beautifully into song.

Thus was she outshone by Elena Wang, who played Bechdel at university so winsomely, even the most avowed lesbian-hater would melt at her breezy, believable charm. Elly Gaskell, in turn, showed she is a name to watch as the spunky youngest incarnation of Bechdel.

  • BOOK IT / FUN HOME

  • WHERE: Drama Centre, Level 3 National Library Board headquarters, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Till Oct 15, Tuesdays to Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 3 and 8pm; Sundays, 3pm (only 8pm on Oct 15)

    ADMISSION: For those aged 18 or older, tickets from $30 to $95 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

There were high points aplenty, largely thanks to Jeanine Tesori's music, which did quite a few doffs to Stephen Sondheim, most notably when Monique Wilson, as Bechdel's long-suffering mother sang devastatingly of Days And Days of tormented ennui as Broadway star Bernadette Peters does with Sondheim's Not A Day Goes By.

As Bruce, Adrian Pang amplified the special bond between fathers and daughters with his gruff way of looking out for his most precocious daughter. Every time his voice caught in his throat, it heightened the play's poignancy.

Bruce's sometimes-impotent rage at her and the rest of their family stems from his having to creep about society because of his proclivities, while his daughter can be freer and more honest about her sexual awakening, even bringing her partner Joan (an unshowy Gail Belmonte) home.

Aria Zhang, who shares the role of Bechdel's brother John with Damien Weber, stole many a scene with her assured and adorable presence. Like Gaskell, she is a talent to watch.

As the curtains came down on pages and pages of Bechdel's drawings fluttering down like falling autumn leaves, the cast's frank yet tender portrayals made many in the audience want to hug their fathers for dear life - and perhaps see and accept themselves for the truly unique beings they are.

What a pity that the authorities here have restricted this five-Tony winner, including for Best Musical, only to those aged 18 or older.

As is so often the case with social aberrations, trying to close off perspectives on these to the young is like using a fig leaf to cover the bulge of private parts - it piques, not quells, their curiosity such that they might seek out sources of sexual enlightenment more sordid than this luminous show.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Fuzzy pains and joys of being a family'. Print Edition | Subscribe