Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Try Seeing It Under Light: “The Fantasticks” at Covina Center for the Performing Arts

“The Fantasticks,” Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ legendary musical, became the longest continually running theater piece in U.S. history for a reason. Its essential humanity and its send-up of sentimental fantasy, theater itself, and the very representational artifice which makes it work prove charming and gently thought-provoking. Intentionally intimate, it played for over 40 years in a NY theater the size of a postage stamp. Simplicity in staging is an essential part of what made it work.

Which brings us to the new production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. The greatest challenge of this piece is simply handling all the space CCPA provides. The show must be performed somewhat larger to reach an audience physically farther away, yet engage the audience in the same sense of shared experience. For the most part, CCPA’s cast achieves this.

The tale itself, borrowed (sort of) from a play of Edmund Rostand, looks at two fathers who pretend to feud in order to nudge their children into defying them and falling in love. The young couple, filled with fantasy and naivete, receive the final push when the fathers hire a romantic-looking gypsy and his traveling player sidekicks to stage an abduction so the boy can rescue the girl. But this is only half the story. As the narrator says, “…the play [is] never done until all of us have been burned a bit and burnished by the sun.”

Chrissi Erickson makes the girl delightfully flighty, though one could argue with the somewhat pop stylings of her simple, lyrical songs. Aaron Lyons offers up an almost ferocious innocence, and sings with assurance, as the boy who is certain he knows everything. Jeremiah Concepcion and Osbaldo Alvarado have captured the energy of the two plotting fathers, though Alvarado sometimes seems to be operating on a slightly different RPM from the rest of the show.

Alastair James Murden makes the mysterious El Gallo somewhat less spectacular than sometimes – more down-to-earth, and accompanies himself neatly on the guitar. Maxwell Herzfeld has a lovely time with Mortimer – the Man Who Dies. Heather Cadarette and Jenna Keiper, dividing the role of the mute who prepares the stage, make that division work well. Still, the absolute standout is Phil Oakley’s Old Actor – a delightfully hammy send-up of theatrical has-beens which can provide some of the show’s greatest laughs.

Indeed, the performers are definitely up to the task of this production. What issues one has lie firmly at the feet of director Mark Gamez.

For example, the very simplicity of “The Fantasticks” is underscored by its lack of any need for sound effects beyond what the musical accompaniment and the cast can create. Yet Gamez has seen fit to import thunder and rain sounds into the scene were they sing “Soon it’s Gonna Rain” – a song about impending, not current precipitation. It is an unneeded distraction, and it implies a lack of trust in his performers or the piece itself.

In another annoying moment, when given a mask by which to see horrors essentially through “rose colored glasses,” the girl doesn’t keep the mask on, but still sees things rosily. The sequence thereby makes less sense. Frustratingly, the entire cast seem occasionally unaware of where the lights are, standing just out of a spotlight, or moving into the dark at moments they should be featured. In a production otherwise comparatively polished, this is odd.

Still, kudos do go to Coleen Thatcher, who plays the entire score on the onstage piano. Costumes and minimalist set design – uncredited – are appropriate. The use of masses of flowers and vegetables to reduce the stage space while defining the fathers’ gardens is a stroke of genius.

“The Fantasticks” is fun, and if you’ve never heard anything but “Try to Remember,” it has a lot more to say about love in a time of wisdom. Indeed, the moral that “without a hurt the heart is hollow” can resonate with anyone comparing the infatuation of the young with the abiding love of the mature. And despite occasional roughness around the edges, this production would make a good introduction.

What: “The Fantasticks” When: Through September 30, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 – $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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