Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Fantasticks"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


Based on the play "Les Romanesques" by Edmund Rostand
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones
Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by Saheem Ali

The Narrator (El Gallo)…..Benjamin Wiggins
The Girl (Luisa)…..Fay Gerbes
The Boy (Matt)…..Sean Morris
The Boy's Mother (Mrs. Hucklebee)…..Leanne Kramer
The Girl's Father (Mr. Bellamy)…..Matthew Spano
The Aging Actress (Henrietta)…..Gillian Mackay-Smith
The Man Who Dies (Mortimer)…..Brian C. Fahey
The Mutes…..Zachary Spiker, Nichole Ward

I lived in New York for ten years, and in all that time I never went to see THE FANTASTICKS, not even when I lived on Sullivan Street, one block up from where it was playing. I had read the script and knew the score, and the show was already in its twenty-first year when I moved in and still going strong when I moved out so I assumed, like many a theatregoer, that THE FANTASTICKS would be around forever and that I'd catch up with it some decade. Well, Messrs. Jones and Schmidt's mighty little show had closed – died? – at the ripe old age of 42 (the longest running show in American theatre history), and I never did get to see it, but last night I saw a lovely runner-up at Northeastern University, directed by Saheem Ali, the wonderful Caliban in last year's THE TEMPEST. And this FANTASTICKS has only a few performances left before it, too, goes the way of its predecessor. Hurry!

What a sweet little show THE FANTASTICKS is! Not sweet as in sticky, but sweet as in charming. This tale of boy-loves-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-reunites-with-girl is still amazingly fresh and contemporary, aided and abetted by the presence of The Narrator (El Gallo) – alternately tender and sardonic, two vaudevillian parents, a pair of crusty, scene-stealing old actors, and by Messrs. Jones and Schmidt affectionately tweaking each clichι on the nose to make it all seem newly minted. And, of course, there are always the songs that helped put THE FANTASTICKS on the map: "Try to Remember", "Soon It's Gonna Rain", and "They Were You". The style of the show is part Brechtian, part commedia dell' arte, and totally delightful. (When Messrs. Jones and Schmidt did a variation of Boy-Girl-Narrator and came up with the overly cynical CELEBRATION (1969), the show flopped on Broadway.)

Paradoxically, Northeastern's bare-stage production has to be one of the most beautiful ones to be seen in recent memory. As the audience entered, the work lights were on in the black-box Studio Theatre, harshly exposing every pipe and beam; every irregularity on the back wall and floor. A box – or something resembling a box – was parked in a cavernous entrance in the back wall. Stage left: a tall, very tall stepladder. Upstage right, in the corner, were a piano, harp, bass and percussion, dumped there like forgotten toys. One by one, the four (excellent) musicians – Patrick J. Finlon, Tula Ruggiero, Betsy Engel and Andy Jasenak – entered, took their places and switched on their reading lights. Two Mutes (in tuxedos) wheeled out the box-like object, which they proceeded to open out into a platform on wheels, with storage space inside. As the Overture started, the actors entered one by one to introduce themselves (as if they are members of a traveling show), the harsh lights started to dim and soften, turning the walls and floor smooth and velvety, and when the actors tossed up confetti squares of white, yellow, orange and green to litter the floor in impromptu patterns, this student production won me over completely. Special mention must be made to Janet Bobcean (costumes) Matthew Richards (lights) and Kevin Orzechowski (set design) for making so much out of so little, especially in the marriage of lights and costume. So many beautiful images go flowing by – the vibrant red of El Gallo's suit; the soft pink of Luisa's dress; the muted salmon and chartreuse checkerboard of Mr. Bellamy's jacket; the shift from moonlight to sunlight; lighting from below or from the side to cast an expressionist pallor onto a scene, to name a few. Even the sudden appearance of a disco ball, throwing off sparkle patterns, seems clever, not hackneyed. Ain't theatre grand, folks?

Since the program does not list a choreographer, I'll assume that Mr. Ali not only provided the inventive staging – dozens of little "bits" that had me smiling throughout – but also the simple but effective dances – tap, twirls and kicks, which works in its favor, not against it; anything smacking of sophistication would take the bloom off this tea rose, and Mr. Ali went for the familiar but never the obvious. (Since he changed the Boy's parent from father to mother, I am grateful that Mr. Ali did not add a sub-romance between Mr. Bellamy and (now) Mrs. Hucklebee, which would only have complicated things.)

The student cast performs with zest in true commedia style. Some of the singing voices are underpowered (THE FANTASTICKS, for all its simplicity, has a highly demanding score for voices that can jazz, belt and wax operatic), but youth, not incompetence, is the culprit here. Benjamin Wiggins, his hair devilishly slicked back, is a lightweight but suave El Gallo – in time, he may become a true leading man. Fay Gerbes gets many a laugh at the risk of turning Luisa into a total ninny (she shows little sense of maturity at play's end) while Sean Morris is rather colorless as Matt. Leanne Kramer (Mrs. Hucklebee) and Matthew Spano (Mr. Bellamy) are tasty hams; and, best of all, Gillian Mackay-Smith and Brian C. Fahey shine as those threadbare abductors Henrietta (formerly "Henry") and Mortimer ("Right-o! Right-o! RIGHT TOE!").

"Try to see it under light!" cries Henrietta.

"Try to see it, period!" cry I.

"The Fantasticks" (20-23 February 2002)
Curry Student Center, Northeastern University, 140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 373-2247

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