BWW Reviews: Rep Stage Offers THE FANTASTICKS Full of Sweetness and Whimsy
When I had barely breached my teenage years, my eighth-grade class took a weekend field trip to New York City, and the itinerary included a few hours at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village to see what even then, I believe, was dubbed the longest-running production in American theatre. At the risk of dating myself, that was long before the original run of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks ended in early 2002 after 42 years and more than 17,000 performances. In New York, the show is enjoying a successful Off-Broadway revival at another theater, and in Columbia, Rep Stage is celebrating the production's 54th anniversary (as of May 3) with a sweet, whimsical production that is every bit as enchanting as the one that swept 13-year-old me off my feet.
You know it's going to be a good one when the first character entering the stage--to the playful notes of live piano and harp--winks at the audience. There goes the fourth wall. And the fun and exuberance only escalate from there. The characters dance and twirl their way onto the simple set (two benches, two crates, a ladder and a wooden chair; the remainder of the magic is up to the actors) and dress, sort of, on stage in preparation for the story to be unfurled by the Narrator--an unendingly charismatic Paul Edward Hope, even when the spotlight isn't on him--also known as El Gallo. A rainfall of Post-It-sized confetti launches him into a tender rendition of the play's most well known song, "Try to Remember" (also recorded by Barbra Streisand), to which the other actors contribute a stunning harmony.
Peppering their performance with a dose of vaudevillian hilarity, the actors tell a simple story with a twist: Boy, Matt, meets Girl, Luisa, in backyard. Unfortunately, there's a wall between their little patches of green because their fathers are sworn enemies. The wall only makes them want each other more. The fathers, it turns out, are in cahoots and have had this "arranged marriage" in the works all along. "To manipulate children, you merely say no," they sing. They decide to stage the Girl's abduction, so the Boy can rescue her, thus sealing the deal.
While the eight-person cast is fairly evenly matched, Stephanie Schmalzle (the Girl) offers a standout performance that combines a sweet, beautiful voice that never once falters with on-point acting. Her 16-year-old Luisa is perfectly naïve, endearing and funny. The fathers--Michael Bunce and Darren McDonnell--share several fantastic duets that are expertly choreographed and delightfully performed. Generally, the choreography (Ilona Kessell's handiwork), down to that of the Mute, an often overlooked but important character, is captivating and precise. The fight scene, in which the Boy overcomes the "abductors," is just enthralling, while never taking itself too seriously.
So the Boy "wins" the heart of the Girl for good. But when they discover their fathers have indeed manipulated them, the sparkle dims, their interest wanes and, they sing, the "scenic becomes cynic." The Boy decides he's too worldly for the Girl and goes off to discover foreign lands. The Girl decides there are other men, namely El Gallo, more interesting than the Boy and sinks into a doomed affair.
It sounds so, well, trite, but it's so not. El Gallo, the grand orchestrator of the action and the one true manipulator, manages to bring the Boy and the Girl back together by showing them that while there may be a wall, the grass is not always greener on the other side. In fact, as a reminder, he urges everyone to "leave the wall."
Director Nancy Tarr Hart and her behind-the-scenes personnel should be lauded for their attention to detail and their whimsical approaches to the performance. From the scrim that provides the hazy appearance of what the Girl sees when El Gallo convinces her to view the world through her rose-colored mask to juggling, confetti and ingenious props, they've taken a production performed literally tens of thousands of times and made it their own.
You could do worse than spend a few hours trying to remember a time more innocent with The Fantasticks-and perhaps you, too, will fall head over heels in love with it, as I have.
The Fantasticks runs Wednesday-Sunday through May 18 at Howard Community College's Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, Md. Rep Stage returns in October for its 2014-15 season. For more information, visit www.repstage.org.
Photos by Britt Olsen-Ecker, courtesy of Rep Stage.