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BWW Review: Forever Entertaining FANTISTICKS Receives a Sterling Production at Pasadena Playhouse


The Fantasticks/book & lyrics by Tom Jones/music by Harvey Schmidt/directed by Seema Sueko/musical director: David O/choreographer: Kitty McNamee/Pasadena Playhouse/through October 2

BWW Review: Forever Entertaining FANTISTICKS Receives a Sterling Production at Pasadena Playhouse

The longest running musical in the world The Fantasticks is always at its best when produced and performed with simplicity. When I first saw it in New York in the 60s, it was performed in a cabaret space against a brick wall, with the suspension of a paper moon above. You can't get much simpler than that. In the current revival at the Pasadena Playhouse, the setting is bigger: a dilapidated, war-torn theatre in Southern California, shuttered since 1969, into which the actors enter to create art. The space may be bigger than the original, but the fine work on display maintains a theatrical simplicity that glows from the inside out, especially in its message of love. This is a stunning production, one of the very best I have seen, with a magnificent interracial cast under the seamless direction of Seema Sueko.

Based on a short play by Edmond Rostand called Les Romanesques or The Romancers, The Fantasticks has an old-world European flavor in its retelling of Pyramus and Thisbe and Romeo and Juliet, replete with melodramatic elements, but light, never overbearing. Invoking the mood of a pastorale or rustic musical play popular in the 16th century, it is meant for a somewhat intimate stage and small orchestra. Musical director David O is at the piano, along with Liesl Erman on harp. Sueko uses audience space, stage right for a few exits, keeping the action clean and focused on the big stage, which despite its size preserves an intimate flavor. The word 'tableau' is used to describe the portrait of the two families, with El Gallo (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez) and the actors Mortimer (Amir Talai) and Henry (Hal Linden) apart, representing the devastating forces of the outside world. There is a silent stage manager or Mute (Alyse Rockett) who, a spirit-like force of nature, leaps around the set and brings on the props like the long stick to represent the wall. Of course, El Gallo is the Narrator who sets the scene and nurtures us to observe the moral at hand.

BWW Review: Forever Entertaining FANTISTICKS Receives a Sterling Production at Pasadena Playhouse

For those unfamiliar with the basic story, two parents - both fathers - divide their houses with a wall to keep their maturing children away from one another....on the surface. Gedde Watanabe is Hucklebee, Matt's father, and Regi Davis is Bellomy, Luisa's father. Ashley Park is Luisa and Conor Guzman, Matt. The parents pretend to feud in order that their children will rebel and fall in love. They really want the marriage using reverse psychology to get the children interested in one another. They set up an elaborate abduction, bring in the actor El Gallo, who with the assistance of two other actors Henry and Mortimer seduce Luisa, while allowing Matt to rescue and save her in a duel with the perpetrator El Gallo. After all is made well, the families reunite and the wall is torn down, only to leave the young couple bored, disillusioned and cynical about this happy state of affairs. Both start arguing as their parents had and split, desiring to seek new and fascinating adventure in the outside world. Of course, as in life, both encounter destruction and turmoil - with the help again of the three actors - and return safely to their happy state, learning to appreciate what they already have, the simple joys of life, which includes the sun, the moon and

BWW Review: Forever Entertaining FANTISTICKS Receives a Sterling Production at Pasadena Playhouse

What on the surface would seem to divide the ensemble works to the contrary in this production. Park is Asian and Davis playing her father is black. Guzman is white, part hispanic and Watanabe essaying the role of his father is Asian. Vive la difference! All the different racial backgrounds blend beautifully together to produce an integrated community in its most ideal state, strengthening the theme. And the chemistry of the cast is impeccable. Bald, Mr. Clean-like Anthony-Rodriguez is strong, dashing and boldly mischievous as El Gallo. Park as Luisa adds sweetness and lust for adventure to her character, as well as a lovely lilting soprano voice. She is a real standout, possessing a fine emotional instrument. Guzman as Matt provides a perfect balance of lovestruck teen and dissatisfied young man, who becomes increasingly overwhelmed by life's evil side. Watanabe is hilarious as Hucklebee, with big broad comedic strokes and a wonderfully theatrical singing voicE. Davis as Bellomy is more straight forward in his approach, but put the two fathers side by side, and pow, it's one deliriously funny combo, especially in song and dance. Amir Talai is quite amusing as Mortimer, methodically performing his goofy death scenes. Rockett is just terrific as the Mute, as she is so agile, never missing a move, sprinkling snow or stardust over the scene. What can one add about Hal Linden that we don't already know. In any role he plays, he is a National Treasure, milking every bit of humor, but never going over the top. His old Henry May stumble a lot and brag even more, but in a genuine, natural way. Once again he proves he still has the stuff that has made him one of our finest comedic actors.

BWW Review: Forever Entertaining FANTISTICKS Receives a Sterling Production at Pasadena Playhouse

David F. Weiner's scenic design of the theatre's old stage is just great. Overrun with paper, props, wood and steel, we can smell the dust. Shirley Pierson keeps the costuming simple with everyday casual wear mixing with old actors' costumes out of trunks...again, we can almost smell the mildew and see the moth holes on old Henry's ancient Shakespearean jacket.

Bravo once more to the Pasadena Playhouse and to director Sueko, who allowed Tom Jones, the original book writer and lyricist to bring the book up to date. "Try to Remember" to go see The Fantasticks, through October 2. You will savor every moment, particularly the lovely mellow music of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, whose songs are eternal.

(photo credit: Jim Cox)

BWW Review: Forever Entertaining FANTISTICKS Receives a Sterling Production at Pasadena Playhouse

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