BWW Reviews: Circuit Playhouse Remembers THE FANTASTICKS

Just a few weeks ago I was dodging a falling chandelier at the Orpheum's staging of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA; at the "Phantom Event" held prior to the play, I was reminded of all the physical (as well as fiscal) requirements for properly staging this production. I kept thinking, "How many small, financially strapped towns would breathe a sigh of relief if the proceeds from such a production were to come their way?" Well, that's one extreme of theatre. Tonight I was exposed to the opposite; Circuit Playhouse's production of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' allegorical THE FANTASTICKS reminded me of Thornton Wilder's minimalism in the staging of OUR TOWN. If musicals like PHANTOM and LES MISERABLES are the "central air" of theatre, THE FANTASTICKS is rather like a quaint little oscillating fan. Yet, its breeze can be refreshing.

Truth to tell, I have always wanted to like this slight musical a little more than has actually been the case; in 1960, it certainly must have been an innovative alternative to the likes of GYPSY or GUYS AND DOLLS or almost anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein. After all, the author of the source play, Edmond Rostand, had also penned CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and one would logically expect THE FANTASTICKS to have characters and situations that are redolent of that work's poetry and charm. Whittled down to basics, it presents two young lovers, "Matt" and "Luisa," who have, through the machinations of their supposedly feuding fathers (with the assistance of a troupe of traveling players, who stage a mock abduction), been brought together. Once the youngsters discover what has actually happened, though, they react as youngsters will - and rebel against the imposed match. Then, stepping outside their "garden," they stump their toes on the "real world" - and, wiser and a bit bruised, they decide to turn once again to each other. It's the old "Experience is a hard school"-lesson, served up with wistful and amusing songs, the best of which, "Try to Remember," will "ear candy" its way into the recesses of your brain and send you seeking the old Ed Ames' recording (either to listen to it or break it).

The more I thought about it, the more I considered how a musical like Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS offers echoes of it. Matt and Luisa are like the storybook characters in the Sondheim work. The assorted "Princes" and "Cinderella" and "Rapunzel" fall rapturously in love by the end of the first act, but the sweetness turns sour in the second act. Ditto here, though the couple does in the end reconnect.

Under Jordan Nichols' direction, this streamlined production moves along pleasantly; and if nothing else, it has the great, good fortune to have one of Memphis' most experienced and best loved actors in a poignant and delightful role - that amazing octogenarian, Barry Fuller, who continues to surprise season after season. If for nothing else, we should all be grateful that THE FANTASTICKS has allowed Mr. Fuller, as the aged thespian "Henry," once again to share his skill and charm in a role that ought to be remembered come awards season. Quoting and misquoting lines from Shakespeare, Mr. Fuller steals scene after scene; and he is ably abetted by the expert comic timing of Sandy Kozik as his sidekick "Mortimer" (his demonstration of the proper way to die on stage is a comic high point in the play).

Director Nichols undertook the role of "Matt" during the performance I saw (Oliver Pierce was MIA), and he was ingratiating as usual; and Katie Hahn's "Luisa" is everything you'd expect of a rosebud of a heroine (her "Much More" reminded me of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" in SOUND OF MUSIC). They're a sweet match. Clad in black, flicking his red scarf, and planting his lips on the arm of Luisa, baritone Gregory Gerbrandt creates a striking, "Zorro"-like "El Gallo" (he also has the privilege of singing the show's biggest "hit"); and, as the vegetables-obsessed fathers, Jonathan Christian ("Hucklebee") and Michael Detroit ("Bellomy"), seasoned performers both, are adroit in their timing and singing (interestingly, both have assayed the role of the "Emcee" in separate productions of CABARET).

THE FANTASTICKS has long been recognized as the world's longest-running musical, and I have looked in that trunk of tricks more times than I ever thought possible. (By the way, take my advice and climb the "wall" if anyone ever tries to loan you a copy of the ill-served 1995 film version, with Joel Grey as one of the fathers and New Kids on the Block's Joey McIntyre as "Matt.") I have a feeling that this particular musical has a nostalgic attraction for those who retain a distant memory of having seen an earlier production; I don't know, however, if younger theatregoers will respond to the simplicity and sparseness that attend the universality of its sweetly sung messages. That's the nature of the work, though; the production here - as well as the musical performances - cannot be faulted. With Atam Woodruff as the "Mute." Through October 26.



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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)