Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s deceptively simple musical, “The Fantasticks” has achieved a place in theatrical history no other show could match. It opened in a tiny Off-Broadway theater in 1960, and ran there for 42 years, making it the longest running show of any kind anywhere in the world. Indeed, at another venue, it is running in New York again today.
What made it work, from the start? First, the storyline, loosely based on a Rostand comedy, had universal ideas to impart. Second, it had an underscore of wit and sheer silliness which proved endearing to generation after generation. Third, it was very simple in production: 8 actors, an “orchestra” consisting of one piano (or sometimes two) and a harp, a couple of poles to hold up a sign and a paper moon/sun, a ladder and a big trunk, with everything else “created” by a mime.
Now the Pasadena Playhouse has recreated this show, and for a “Fantasticks” purist there is an initial moment of concern. First, there is a set. Second, it becomes essentially a play within a play. And then there are some adaptations to the lyrics (some admittedly very necessary) and to small elements of plot. Yet, frankly, one really needn’t have worried. My advice is to set one’s preconceived notions aside, and dive into director Seema Sueko’s vision.
The set, by David F Weiner, is a dilapidated and abandoned Southern California theater, shut since 1969. There is a sense of disorder which might be attributed to conflict, and that powers the director’s approach of having a troupe of actors break into the space with a need to create art in the midst of chaos. However this is also a specific nod to the Playhouse itself, which shuttered in that year, and at one point nearly became a parking lot. The last production done by what was then the Playhouse’s acting school was “The Fantasticks”.
Once the actors arrive, the beloved musical rises out of pieces of flotsam and scaffolding. And just as other productions have used the ladder and poles, these random bits create in the imagination all the places and spaces needed to tell the story of two fathers who pretend to feud in order to inspire their children to fall in love.
There is the storybook romance, the moonlit tryst, and the many other manipulations the fathers try which eventually begin to fall apart. Then, as the young lovers try to venture into the world on their own, there is the hurt and experience which brings them back to each other with love beyond youthful, starry-eyed romance. There are also the silly or romantic songs, the ridiculous aging actors brought in to help the fathers’ plot, and the wise El Gallo to narrate. There is also the Mute, a dancer/mime.
Philip Anthony-Rodriguez gives El Gallo a slightly dark wisdom, and sings the show’s most famous song, “Try to Remember” with a wistful edge. Regi Davis and especially Gedde Watanabe are a hoot as the two fathers: schemingly well meaning, simple and sure of themselves. Conor Guzman gives Matt, the boy dreaming of romance and adventure, a sureness which plays well with Ashley Park’s charmingly quirky Luisa. All these folk sing well – the young lovers particularly – and the story moves with a natural flow.
Of course, some of the best bits are left for the two aging actors called upon to flesh out various fantasy moments. As Henry, the ancient Shakespearean whose company has disintegrated along with his memory, Hal Linden provides just the right combination of confusion and pomposity. Amir Talai, as Henry’s faithful companion Mortimer, offers up one of the most creative and effective of Mortimer’s supposedly famous death scenes in recent memory.
Yet, there are admittedly a few question marks. Though the adaptation of some song lyrics proves both wise and socially appropriate, and the replacement of cartoonish “Indians’ with “musketeers” works well, the young couple’s eye-opening traverse through the world has been given a arc which may not click with some.
Most especially the exchange of Luisa’s “rose colored glasses” for a gradual metal plating of her head, though symbolic, seems a break with the more lighthearted romantic structure of the piece. Likewise Matt’s misadventures are no longer nearly fantastic and symbolic, but contemporary and severe. Also the Mute, played by Alyse Rockett, leaves off miming at odd moments, like the reconstruction of the fathers’ wall, even though it is consistently referenced in the script.
Even so, this production still embraces the sheer theatricality of allowing one’s imagination to take one all sorts of places you can’t really see. It’s still filled with the same winks at youth and idealism, and at the artificiality of the acting profession itself. The songs still soar, and the intimacy is still surprisingly available, even in the Playhouse auditorium, which is worlds larger than its first setting. For this reason, “The Fantasticks” still delights.
And, in the end, the moral that true love is more than fantasy romance, and that friendship survives best with boundaries, are things we can all still buy into. This is why “The Fantasticks” will probably be on stage somewhere on and on into the future.
What: “The Fantasticks” When: through October 2, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $90, with $135 premium seating Info: 626-356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
“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
“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