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

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A Little Night Music (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

It takes a lot of drive and talent to direct a show with a large cast involving an enormous set and make it all seem effortless. The challenge is even greater when the show is a musical by the great Stephen Sondheim. It’s for these reasons that Short North Stage is fortunate to have Michael Licata on hand to guide their production of A Little Night Music, a confection high in style and grace, and the opening show of their new season.

A Little Night Music, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, premiered on Broadway in 1973, won six Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book), ran for a year and a half, was adapted into a rather poor 1977 film, and has gone on to become one of Sondheim’s most beloved and accessible works. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), A Little Night Music is about middle aged widower Frederik Egerman and his much younger wife, Anne; his son from his previous marriage, Henrik; Petra, the Egermans’ saucy maid; Desiree Armfeldt, a successful touring actress and Frederik’s former mistress; Desiree’s daughter Fredrika; Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt; Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desiree’s current boyfriend; and Charlotte Malcolm, the count’s wife who wants to take her husband back from Desiree. All of these people find themselves at Madame Armfeldt’s estate one weekend where relationships are rekindled while others are broken. It is a sweetly romantic comedy from which came the song “Send in the Clowns,” arguably Sondheim’s most commercial hit, though it also includes such penetrating compositions as “A Weekend in the Country,” “Every Day a Little Death,” and “The Miller’s Son.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack
 
You know you’re seeing something special when you can recognize so many faces from other shows around Columbus playing small or mute roles in this production when they are usually leads (I’m looking at you Nick Hardin, Doug Joseph, Chris Rusen, and Kristen Basore). Everyone on stage here is perfectly cast and on their A game; the moment that Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) is seen next to her on-stage husband, Mark A. Harmon (Frederik), I thought, “She’s too young for him,” and that’s one of the points of the story! The cast seems to enjoy grandly prancing around the elegant set by Ray Zupp, delicately designed with patterns and pieces evocative of a more tasteful period. The orchestra sounds lush and full, firmly conducted by musical director and orchestrator Lloyd Butler; the players are behind a screen on stage, their silhouettes comfortingly visible in the background.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Marya Spring (Desiree) and Mark A. Harmon (Frederik)
 
Mark A. Harmon (Frederik) and Marya Spring (Desiree) have sparkling chemistry as the lovers who rekindle their romance, and they both have commanding stage presence. The play has many other delightful characters, but it is the moments with Mr. Harmon and Ms. Spring that I treasure and of which I found myself wanting to see more.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt)
 
Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt) is wry and direct in her wheelchair-bound role, and her rendition of “Liasons” is beguiling as she keeps a firm grasp on her emotions, releasing her grip every so slightly in a few moments; it’s a subtle shift but highly effective.
 
Photo: Adam Zeek (zeekcreative.com) – Eli Brickey (Petra)
 
Eli Brickey (Petra) all but stops the show with her rousing rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” though every scene in which she appears has a bit more kick than it would’ve otherwise. Her scenes with JJ Parkey (Henrik) bristle with sexual energy. Mr. Parkey plays repressed well, even persevering through the score’s weakest moment (in my opinion, mind you) – his section of the otherwise charming “Now/Later/Soon.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) and JJ Parkey (Henrik)
 
There is an odd audio anomaly that is worth pointing out; all of the voices, no matter where the actors are on stage, come solely out of a far left speaker. It’s a disconcerting sound problem, especially when the orchestra can be heard so clearly across the stage. I hope this was an issue just with the performance I attended and not a design flaw.

Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music is a very good production of a very good show, and its leisurely pace suits the material, though at around three hours it sometimes feels a bit slow. It’s a real testament to Short North Stage to have some of the biggest talents in the area on their stage all at once. I’ve always found the show itself to be second tier Sondheim (which means it is better than first tier most anyone else), but it’s that rare musical that improves in its second act. There is no shortage of talent or beauty on display in this production, one of the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever seen in Columbus not part of a touring production.

*** out of ****

A Little Night Music continues through to November 1st in 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/467