The Fantasticks (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)


It’s funny how some plays can become such a part of popular culture that they can feel like you’ve seen them before even if you haven’t. The Fantasticks, the long-running 1960 Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical about two neighboring fathers pretending to feud in the hope that their children will rebel and fall in love, is one of those evergreens, a musical that is akin to a rite of passage as each new generation discovers and embraces its charms. The Fantasticks isn’t a great work, but its memorable score, including such standards as “Try to Remember,” “Much More,” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” has done much to solidify its reputation.

Photo: Jason Allen – Emma Coniglio (Luisa) and Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt)

Now Short North Stage presents their version of The Fantasticks, only this time director Jonathan Flom has changed its setting and locale to Oklahoma circa April 1935 during The Great Depression, more specially after a great dust storm that has left much death and destruction in its wake. Not a word or song has been changed to accommodate this interpretation, and yet what emerges in this production injects new life and relevance in the all-too-familiar story of boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back. Mr. Flom’s production, with a sprawling set by Jonathan Sabo complete with mounds of dirt and partially buried farm paraphernalia, is presented in the round with limited seating around the perimeter of a raised wooden platform (the room’s support beam is cleverly dressed to appear like a tower); the overall effect is one of inclusion, like the audience is a part of the action.

Photo: Jason Allen – Brian Hupp (El Gallo) and Emma Coniglio (Luisa)

The cast is uniformly excellent, exuding a kind of familial affection for one another that permeates past their roles. Brian Hupp makes an oddly dangerous and elusive El Gallo, a fresh take on this character all dressed in black; Robert Carlton Stimmel plays Matt with energy to spare, and Emma Coniglio has a way of playing a bit spoiled as Luisa that isn’t cloying; Doug Joseph and Ryan Stem, as the fathers of Matt and Louisa respectively, should be listened to carefully for their humorous ad libbing as they bicker with each other in the way that only great friends can do; Mr. Joseph and Mr. Stem both have a way of embodying the spirit of both mother and father that makes their investment in the future of their children all the more significant.

Photo: Jason Allen – (left to right) Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt), Kate Lingnofski (Mortimer), and Alex Lanier (Henry)

Though her stage time is brief, Alex Lanier makes a dizzyingly bombastic Henry, the old actor who helps to stage an attempted abduction of Louisa to help Matt appear to be a hero; Kate Lingnofski as Mortimer, Henry’s sidekick, has a staunch posture and walk that is highly individual and comedic; her goggles, cap, and scarves conjure images of a Chaplinesque Amelia Earhart. Megan Valle plays The Mute, and she is also responsible for the choreography that feels so organic that it can be difficult to tell when it starts and ends; Ms. Valle acts silently with an expression that looks as if she’s on the cusp of saying something quite profound, the story of Matt and Luisa’s courtship playing out in front of her being the one respite from the world around her.

Photo: Jason Allen

Short North Stage’s The Fantasticks has a wistful, dreamlike quality to it, almost like recalling a memory through a haze of sheer muslin. All of the familiar songs and characters are there, but this telling has more of an urgency and relevance to it; the love and joy of the young lovers is more poignant with The Great Depression as a backdrop. This reimagining doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed at all, and the simplicity of the story has never felt more welcome a luxury. Aside from the intimacy of experiencing this production in the round, there is an added benefit; many times I caught myself glancing at the smiling faces of other audience members on the opposite side of the performing space. I’m sure I sported an incongruous smile as well since the sweetness and hopefulness of this production is infectious. “Aren’t you glad we came out tonight?” I heard a lady ask her friends as we all exited the theatre after the play. Everyone agreed that seeing this production of The Fantasticks was time well-spent.

**** out of ****

The Fantasticks continues through to August 14th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/471

Advertisements

The Fantasticks (Standing Room Only – Columbus, OH)

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that Standing Room Only’s The Fantasticks is the first time I’ve seen the show. Every musical theatre fan worth their salt has seen many different productions, right? I’ve had the 1960 original off-Broadway cast album for a long time, and many of the songs I know well because of cover versions performed by Barbra Streisand and Robert Goulet, and I did see the terribly misguided and unfortunate film version. Perhaps it’s fitting that my first time seeing this classic is in this quite adorable, well-sung production playing at the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center on Franklin, where most of my most enjoyable local theatre experiences have occurred over the past two years.

The Fantasticks has a classic score with music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones (not the Vegas performer), and it ran continuously for over forty years off-Broadway while also being licensed for production all over the world. It is about two young neighbors named Luisa (Sharon Kibe) and Matt (Lake Wilburn) and the efforts of their respective fathers Bellomy (Scott Wilson) and Hucklebee (Ron Nocks) to make them a couple. The fathers pretend to hate each other in the hope that their children will rebel and fall for each other. They enlist El Gallo (Chris Rusen) to help them stage an abduction to bring the youngsters together, though they were already smitten and needed no assistance. The deception is unveiled, the lovebirds part, but everything turns out in the end. The plot isn’t going to keep anyone on the edge of their seat, but it doesn’t need to – the joy is seeing the show play out simply and engagingly, and Steve Black’s direction does just that.

The Fantasticks is designed to be performed on a minimal set with practical curtains and effects, which is the case here, but this production also has more sophisticated lighting cues and clearer sound than I expected. Aside from some loud but brief distortion (it sounded like a mic was live on a cast member while they were going through a costume change or an arm was brushing up against a body mic), the sound was remarkably clear and well modulated. The lovely piano accompaniment by Aaron Dvorak didn’t overpower the performers nor did they overpower it, a difficult balance to maintain I’m sure. There was a strange anomaly where Lake, whenever he faced away from the audience and towards Sharon, sounded like his voice was coming exclusively from a speaker on the far left. It was unintentionally funny when during “Metaphor” his voice would shift from coming from the center to far left to center to far left and back again as his head turned out towards and then away from the audience. Still, he sounded quite clear.

Though I saw the first performance, everyone appeared on pointe and ready to play, aside from a few negligible slip ups by fifty-year stage vet Ron Nocks (Hucklebee), who gets a pass considering how affable he comes across in a rather age-inappropriate role. As his son Matt, Lake Wilburn is startlingly good; handsome, appealing, bold-voiced without suffering from American Idol-itis, and the very definition of boy next door, which he is in this play. Sharon Kibe plays Luisa as more coquette than feline though the script would allow for more of the latter. She doesn’t appear to need to breathe much to be able to race in preparation to move from chest to head voice, and there were times I thought she sounded more Christine Daae than a simple farm girl, but she still was present and in the moment. Someone needs to dial her down from an 11 to a 7 or 8 though as she often opens her eyes so wide that they cross. Less is more, Sharon, so being young and cute while having Lake to play against can do some of the work for you. Scott Wilson as her father makes me mourn the performance I missed of him as the governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas several years back. He is jolly with a pleasing timbre to his voice, but he is skilled in reigning it in during his duets with Ron Nocks so that they both can be heard. Chris Rusen as El Gallo reminded me of Puss ‘n Boots, but that isn’t a bad thing. His gaze is strong and focused, and he has the looks and manner to be just as appealing but in a wholly different way than Lake. Sharon is a lucky girl, so maybe that’s why she comes off as a tad over excited. They all sing well, and isn’t that the most important thing anyway?

I was shocked to read in the program that Henry, one of El Gallo’s sidekicks, is Sileye Ndongo, a high school senior! Sure, he’s playing the part of an old man and he has a lot of affectation and stage presence, but a high school senior? Lake is also a senior, but he is playing someone around the same age. Sileye dives into near senility and wiriness fearlessly, playing someone easily more than thrice his age. Wow – his scenes with fellow sidekick David Johnson (Mortimer) are laugh out loud funny. Special attention should also be paid to Alex Lanier as The Mute, who gets the first laugh in the show and starts off the evening before settling into the scenery. I liked looking at her face from time to time as she watched her cast mates perform, seeming to enjoy the show as much as the audience while still staying in character, with only her eyes going her away. It can’t be an easy part, but Alex made her mark in it.

Director Steve Black keeps the show moving, and though his bio lists his long history with the show his direction never comes off as rote or just functional. I found myself a bit startled when it ended as I was in the wonderful position of wanting more because of how sweet and delightful the performance had been. It wasn’t perfect, but it wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable if it was. It’s a very good presentation of a classic and feels fresh.

*** out of ****

The Fantasticks continues through to June 14th, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/the-fantasticks.html