Christine Bunuan is a well-known face on the Chicago stage. With a résumé that boasts performances at Steppenwolf, Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Drury Lane, and the Chicago sit-down company of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, she knows how to grab and hold the attention of a room. It's a good thing, too, because her solo show Christmas at Christine's, which she also wrote, clocks in at a full 90 minutes with no intermission. That's a whole lot of yuletide cheer, even for the jolliest Chicagoans.
Directed by J.R. Sullivan and accompanied by musical director Ryan Brewster, Bunuan sings a whopping 27 songs as she shares stories of her personal Christmases. Her anecdotes are certainly relatable, if not the stuff of high drama: the disappointment of not receiving a hoped-for Cabbage Patch doll, the first Christmas away from her parents' home, and a dreary, snowless Christmas spent on tour in Sarasota, Florida.
Christmas at Christine's is at its most compelling when Bunuan relates her parents' memories of Christmastime in the Philippines. Loving descriptions of local celebrations and family traditions are complemented by classic Tagalog holiday songs like "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit." The show also recounts Christine's lifelong romance with her husband, and the holiday challenges that arise from their interfaith marriage (she's Catholic, he's Jewish). Bunuan's affection for her family and their homeland is clear, and she has pitch-perfect comedic timing, especially when lightly poking fun at her family.
The night does meander away from its holiday theme several times, sometimes to its detriment. Amid lovely renditions of "The First Noel" and "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)," Bunuan sings secular tunes, like "The Impossible Dream" and "L-O-V-E," that are only tenuously connected to her stories. While it's a real pleasure to hear Bunuan knock "The More You Ruv Someone" out of the park, it doesn't quite fit.
At times, songs and stories are illustrated by selections from Bunuan's personal collection of family photos. They are projected onto the front door of the living room set. It's a clever idea by Yeaji Kim, who designed both the set and the projections, but unfortunately, the projections are obscured and unclear in the pattern of the door's curtains.
While Bunuan has charisma and passion to spare, her script could have used some tightening. Ninety minutes is a stretch for even the most structured solo show. If Christmas at Christine's were pared down, under all of that gift wrap there might be a one-hour gem.
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