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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Cats (Columbus Children’s Theatre & Columbus Moving Company – Columbus, OH)

 


Cats, one of the longest-running and most popular stage musicals worldwide, has always been a bit of a puzzlement to many a theatre fan, myself included. The show doesn’t follow the usual structure of a musical or stick to any of its conventions, yet it has proven to be incredibly popular and successful. Adapted from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with music supplied by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was one of the British mega musicals that took over Broadway during the 1980s. In all the show ran for eighteen years on Broadway and has toured the country since the mid ’80s, a favorite for families long before Disney’s The Lion King appeared on the horizon in 1997.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Grace Johnson (Jemima) and Devin Judge (Munkustrap)
 

Cats is an assemblage of various character numbers with only the barest semblance of a plot; its main assets are a catchy score, character design, and dancing. It isn’t a real musical in the traditional sense, but it has surely drawn many people to the theatre over the last thirty-five years who may now owe their initial curiosity about live theatre to this show; in that way, Cats is a force musical theatre scholars can’t deny, one that has helped to foster generations of theatregoers who perhaps moved on to more serious and deeper pastures musically. The show’s flagship song “Memory” is now a standard, one that even the staunch theatre cognoscenti (those that count Cats along with other British juggernauts like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon as somehow inferior works) can’t discount entirely. 

  

Photo: David Heasley – William Macke (Skimbleshanks)
 


Cats has now arrived via Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company at the historic Lincoln Theatre in a production that is elaborate with energy to spare. Here the cats frolic and scamp about, sometimes even through the aisles around the audience. This production replicates so many of the costumes and bits of stage business quite familiar to fans of the show while making some notable and welcome changes that aid in making it the kind of local event that commands attention. Even if you’ve seen Cats many times before, this production is still very much worth your time and attention.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Rumpleteazer (Sara Tuohy) and Mungojerrie (Kyle Swearingen)
 
Highlights of this production include seeing Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Kyle Swearingen and Sara Tuohy respectively) perform their number with added acrobatic feats; William Macke shimmy his way around the stage as Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat; Ryan Stem’s solemn and solid portrayal of Old Deuteronomy; Stewart R. Bender performing double duty as jolly Bustopher Jones and the heartbreakingly infirm Gus, The Theatre Cat; and last but far from least, Kendra Lucas as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, eloquently delivering “Memory” as if the words are occurring to her for the first time, more than matching the best interpretations of that famous song.

 

Photo: David Heasley – Kendra Lucas (Grizabella)
 
Director Ryan Scarlata sticks close to the feel and staging of the 1998 film version produced for television and video release, which appears to have been a valuable reference. Still, some of the best moments are when Mr. Scarlata and choreographer Jeffrey Fouch (who also adeptly performs as Quaxo and Mr. Mistoffelees) veer away from what we expect from Cats, incorporating more gymnastics and acrobatics into the presentation. Michael Brewer’s decrepit circus set fits the material far better in my mind than the traditional junkyard, as the various musical sequences feel more like circus or vaudeville acts than alley performances. Brendan Michna’s layered lighting serves to enhance each scene and support the excellent craftsmanship of the many talented people working behind the scenes to make sure the makeup, costumes, and wigs are just right.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Krista Lively Stauffer (Jellylorum) and Stewart R. Bender (Gus)
 
The only aspect of this production that is sometimes disappointing is that of the music, which is a pretty big deal for a musical. I’m sure it’s no fault of musical director Jonathan Collura as he never missteps in his accompaniment, but only so much can come across without the proper instrumentation. Many numbers sound more like elevator Muzak than what should be playing alongside the action on stage.

 

Photo: David Heasley
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company have done a remarkable job mounting Cats with production values that meet or exceed what we usually see from national tours when they pass through Columbus. It really says something when I find myself enjoying a production of a show of which I’m not particularly fond, but that is exactly what happened in this case. Don’t let the 150-minute running time listed on CCT’s website scare you off; it actually runs two hours including the intermission though no songs are missing or are abridged (aside from “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and perhaps longer dance sequences that pass without notice). Cats is still a show that makes many a theatre fan roll their eyes, but I found myself humming the tunes to “The Rum Tum Tugger” and “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” as well as the ubiquitous “Memory” for days afterwards.

***/ out of ****

Cats continues through to May 15th in the Lincoln Theatre located at 769 East Long Street, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/cats.html