Stage Struck Review

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Tag Archives: Barbara Schofield

“The Fantasticks” at Sierra Madre: Intimate Charm, Old School

Michael Anthony as El Gallo, and Kelsey Hainlen as The Girl in a rehearsal shot from Sierra Madre Playhouse's "The Fantasticks" [photo: Ward Calaway]

Michael Anthony as El Gallo, and Kelsey Hainlen as The Girl in a rehearsal shot from Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “The Fantasticks” [photo: Ward Calaway]

“The Fantasticks” holds a special place in the heart of the American theatrical community. Its Off-Broadway production is not only the longest-running musical in New York history (1960 – 2002 without a stop, and then revived in a different theater in 2006 and still going), it is apparently the longest running musical in the world.

Small (eight performers and an orchestra of two or three), graced with a timeless story, a minimalist and therefore somewhat ageless production standard, and songs and characters which hum in the brain, it has become a staple of small theaters across the country. Still, it does not sell itself. Its performers need to be up to the material in a very specific way, as there is no spectacle – no elaborate production – to hide behind.

A new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse fiddles a bit with the standard, but that generally works to good effect. The trick is to innovate without interrupting the intimacy or the charm, something the co-directors James Fowler and Barbara Schofield achieve, though there were a couple of changes which mystified.

The tale is actually quite simple. A young girl and the slightly older boy next door fall in love despite family efforts to keep them apart. What they don’t realize is that this has been maneuvered by their fathers, who, though they present themselves as enemies, are actually good friends. To bring this to final fruit, the fathers hire a romantic-looking man and his cohorts to stage an abduction of the girl, allowing the boy to be a hero and dissolve the supposed feud. All goes according to plan until the kids find out they’ve been manipulated. Will their love survive the dashing of their romanticism?

This production makes El Gallo, the romantic man, no longer a sort of Zorro figure, but a slick cool cat in a shiny suit and an open silk shirt. Michael Anthony looks the part of a jazz man, and brings a slightly different flare to the character who both guides the audience, and takes the young people through the rough shock of growth.

Kelsey Hainlen and Daniel Bellusci are the young lovers. Hainlen sings with accuracy and authority – key elements to the part – and a just slightly overbright sparkle which fits the part. Bellusci radiates innocent wonder, and with the exception of a few close-harmony slips toward the start, sings with conviction as well. They play their parts without irony – absolutely essential if this is to work.

John Szura and Peter Miller have a lovely time as the supposedly warring fathers. A startlingly, delightfully understated Barry Schwam has quite a time with The Old Actor, hired by El Gallo to help with the abduction, and Barry Saltzman is the best Mortimer (The Man Who Dies) I have seen in some time: funny and dramatic without beating his schtick to death. Helen Frederick rounds out the cast as The Mute, who creates imaginary scenery and assists in the tale-telling.

At its best, Fowler and Schofield’s vision brings a fresh spirit to this piece. The usual “plane platform with posts” set has been augmented with the vague outline of trees – still minimalist, but with the aura of a setting. The only awkwardness comes toward the start, when several characters are required, not only to mount the platform at center stage, but then to climb further onto various boxes or chairs, get down, get up again, get down again, etc., all in rather quick succession. It’s distracting, and winds the performers at crucial moments. Yet, once the story settles in, that issue is gone.

My only other issue, and it is simple curiosity, has me question the dropping a very funny and effective line about a slop pot. Also, and far more understandably, the show uses the authors’ own 1990 optional replacement lyrics to “The Rape Ballet” (though, in the original, El Gallo goes to pains to explain he uses the term in its original Latin meaning: abduction) which make it “The Abduction” instead – their acknowledgement of a change in cultural sensibilities which made the original uncomfortable.

In short, with the exception of all that climbing up and down at the start, this production moves well and has the charm and mild magic “The Fantasticks” always brings with it. And who couldn’t afford to learn, in the end, that “we all must die a bit before we grow again.” It is, after all, the almost simplistic profundity of this show which has kept people coming back to see it, wherever it is playing, for over 50 years.

What: “The Fantasticks” When: Through July 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 students/seniors, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355- 4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Taut “Incident at Vichy” gives Sierra Madre Playhouse audiences much to ponder

Davind Kieran and Richard Michael Knolla struggle with the ethical dilemma that is an “Incident at Vichy” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

Playwright Arthur Miller tends toward one elemental theme in his work. In “Death of a Salesman,” considered by many to be the greatest play written by an American, in his other major works like “All My Sons”, and in less well known pieces like “Incident at Vichy” the question is always about personal ethical choices, and the results they engender.

Now, at Sierra Madre Playhouse, a strong cast brings “Incident at Vichy” to vibrant life. The questions the play asks are singularly evocative in our own day, when everyone from businessmen to politicians dance to the pipings of power. In this examination of how Nazism managed its control, the acceptance of horror, the sense of powerlessness, and the balance of self-preservation and ethical rightness make for intense watching.

It is Vichy, France in 1942. The new capital of France’s puppet government under the Nazis, it is just beginning to see the effects of German racial attitudes which have already poisoned most of the rest of Europe. In a holding cell, a collection of (mostly) men somewhat randomly snatched off the streets waits each one’s turn for an inspection of identity papers.

It quickly becomes obvious that those who are Jewish will face a fate far different from those who are not. What then, is the responsibility of the doomed, if they are doomed? What is the responsibility of someone who is not Jewish and may be able to walk away? And what of the captors themselves – some German, some French? In what sense may they be caught in a web as well? What moral forces will define these people? Is there even a place for morality in this jaw-droppingly inhumane, yet bureaucratic quagmire?

To make this long one-act play work, every single person, from ones who appear briefly to those who stay on stage for the entire hour and a half, must be create a strongly individual character. This often proves an overwhelming demand for small, comparatively community-oriented theaters where the smallest parts are often handed to the best friend of the ticket taker, or someone’s available spouse – anyone who can walk on, say a line, and walk off without tripping or giggling. Not this time. From the guard who appears for mere moments to the elderly Austrian prince whose presence helps define the action from the first line to the last, each actor does a splendid job.

Of particular note are Davind Kieran, underplayed and thoughtful as the aforementioned prince, whose quick categorization of Nazis as uncivilized thugs unravels as the play proceeds, and Rick Knolla as the psychiatrist trying to analyze a larger framework for the devastation sweeping him away. Barry Saltzman’s intensely nervous, fussy painter proves most effective, as does Colin Campbell’s well-known actor desperately clinging to the idea that civilized people will, in the end, only treat each other in civilized ways.

Also excellent are Rendon Ramsey, as a socialist railroad electrician balancing fear and pride, Andy Harris as a rather fatalistic young boy, Zayd Jaber as a waiter startled to discover his captor is a favorite customer, and John Dimitri, briefly but recognizably pompous as a collaborating businessman. In almost wordless but nonetheless powerful portraits, Rebecca Rodick becomes very memorable as an aging gypsy woman, while Vance Wells evokes gentle despair as an elderly Orthodox Jew reciting the Kaddish as he awaits his doom.

As the German and French captors, Karyn O’Bryant’s “anthropological expert” vibrates with the certainty of a devout Nazi, while Matt Dodge, playing a German army major assigned to run this operation (but only until the SS arrives – he is a field officer, after all) becomes a portrait of a man subjugating personal beliefs to pride and a sense of inevitability. Brent Schindele, as the French captain glad to hand responsibility to others, and Aaron Jackson as the obsequious local cafe owner startled to discover his waiter among the detainees finish out the cast.

Because these individual portraits are all so clearly drawn by both the script and the cast, the arguments of the play become central. Director Barbara Schofield keeps the rhythm taut and naturalistic, and creates a great deal of realistic movement around a static space. Thus, what could have devolved into a costumed ethical discussion remains vibrant, thoughtful theater.

Nods also to set designer Don Bergmann, who along with Schofield has created a bleak, yet layered space which underscores the desperation while still allowing for adequate movement, and the sense of the unknown in that “next room,” so important to the play’s tension.

“Incident at Vichy” is powerful stuff, and though the ideals expressed are not unique to Miller, told with his flair for precision and heart the play leaves much for those who see it to chew over. When this piece originally opened on Broadway in 1964, it lasted for only 32 performances. Perhaps at that time people were too close to all the messages the individual characters have to share about individualism, about sense of powerlessness against oppression, even about the ability of Nazis to be otherwise nice people. Today it brings those messages to those who potentially share a different sense of the world, who may be ready to hear what Miller has been saying all along about the power of personal choice, even when all seems lost.

What: “Incident at Vichy” When: Through September 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors and students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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