BWW Review: A FANTASTICKS FOR THE AGES OPENS THE GORDY
I have a particular fondness for theatre about theatre - theatre in which the storytelling becomes the story, with a narrator or interlocutor transparently guiding our journey. Think CABARET, PIPPIN, OUR TOWN, INTO THE WOODS - even CHICAGO, to an extent; but the granddaddy of them all, as far as modern theatre is concerned, is THE FANTASTICKS. Written in 1960 by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (no, not THAT Tom Jones), THE FANTASTICKS has the distinction of being the longest running musical in the world. The Off-Broadway production ran from May of 1960 until January of 2002, with a mind-blowing 17,162 performances. The Who's Who of actors who have cut their teeth on THE FANTASTICKS both off-Broadway and on various tours includes Liza Minelli, Elliot Gould, Glenn Close, Bert Convy, Kristen Chenoweth and role originator Jerry Orbach.
This lovely show's success is easy to understand - the tunes are melodic and hummable, the story timeless - boy meets girl, madcap parents create a well-intentioned but foolish scheme, boy loses girl, love conquers all. The characters are archetypes; the outcome, though fraught with obstacles, inevitable, the message simple and clearly delivered - a favorite of universities and community theatres everywhere. Given this simplicity, why did Stages choose THE FANTASTICKS to open The Gordy, their sparkling new home? Because it is perfect. There is no neater, lovelier piece of musical theatre. To christen a new theatre with this show makes absolute sense.
The set, a spare, clever design by Laura Fine Hawkes, is a smart nod to the original while using the Gordy's state of the art technology. The Mute, played by a charming Lindsay Longacre, manipulates ropes, gears, and platforms effortlessly to bring us in and out of the locations of the story. As a silent witness as well as expeditor of the action, Longacre is an enticing host into the world that awaits.
FANTASTICKS is at its core a love story, and the young lovers Tyler Hecht (Matt) and Kiaya Scott (Luisa) are excellent. Hecht is earnest and nerdy; he gave me an Evan Hansen vibe in his first scenes. His voice is warm and smooth, befitting a young heartthrob. Matt's fall from devoted lover to shattered traveler is heart wrenching. His paramour is an absolute delight. Scott is a giddy, effervescent teenage girl replete with squeals and boundless energy, contained in a beautifully controlled package. Her soaring vocals in Soon It's Gonna Rain are worth the ticket price alone.
The couple's fathers, portrayed by Luke Longacre (Hucklebee) and Labraska Washington (Bellomy), have some of the show's best moments. They bounce off each other to great comic effect; Longacre the more serious of the two and Washington with a brash goofiness; they are lovable and engaging, and we root for their friendship as much as we root for the young lovers. Both Longacre and Washington are skilled singers who really shine in Never Say No.
THE FANTASTICKS has ostensibly been El Gallo's show. He is narrator, emcee, puppet master, ne'er-do-well and scoundrel. This role can easily slip into pastiche, and become a Zorro-like figure with over-the-top braggadocio. Nkrumah Gatling gives us something entirely different. He is seductive and wry, charming and dangerous, witty and manipulative all at once. Gatling never falls into easy caricatures; his El Gallo is the most human of all of the characters, flawed, dangerous, and utterly charming. His duet with Matt, I Can See It, is one of the standout numbers of the show. We hate what he does to our hero and heroine but we do not hate El Gallo - Gatling reaches past the flourishing cape and swashbuckling swordplay to tap into an underlying current of loneliness that humanizes El Gallo and distances him from stereotype. Gatling is a Houston native making a long overdue return to our stages, and if we are lucky, it won't be his last.
THE FANTASTICKS has some powerhouse ballads and tender moments but it truly shines as a musical comedy, and the comedy of this evening belongs to roving out-of-work actors Henry, a bombastic Shakespearean sort and Mortimer, whose specialty is a well-played death scene. Ronnie Blaine's Mortimer is hilarious, a put-upon fall guy who knows how to make the most of his moments in the spotlight. Blaine's physical comedy is top-notch, and his character, while ridiculous and inept, is nevertheless likeable. However, it is Houston veteran Paul Hope who gives a master class in timing and delivery. There is no syllable that does not roll perfectly into place; no expression left unexplored. Hope is the consummate comic player.
The show opens with the well-known Try to Remember. When the first notes from the gorgeous grand piano and harp (featuring an adroit group of musicians from Aperio), fill the space, you know you are in for a treat. Stages THE FANTASTICKS is just that - a treat. Directed with a delicate touch by Kenn McLaughlin with lilting, whimsical choreography by Krissy Richmond and skillful musical direction by Robin Ward Holloway, this performance pulls aside the trappings and trinkets of grander musicals and lets the actors tell their stories simply and with truth and joy.
THE FANTASTICKS runs through March 15 at The Gordy, 800 Rosine Street, Houston, TX. Tickets starting at $25 are available at Stageshouston.com.