BWW Review: Springhouse Theatre's Winsome Staging of THE FANTASTICKS
Sometimes even the loveliest and most appealing of musical theater scores can be forgotten, virtually erased from your memory. Unless, of course, you have your digital music system programmed to play a cavalcade of memorable showtunes, but even then, you're likely hear songs from the same ten shows on a continuous loop.
Case in point: Harvey Schmidt's melodic score for The Fantasticks contains some wonderful songs that you're likely to overlook unless you're paying close attention or a theater-goer in Nashville who has the luxury of choosing between two concurreNT Productions. Franklin's Pull-Tight Players' rendition will play one more weekend after this and, as is the tradition there, shows are quickly selling out. However, in Smyrna, at the Springhouse Theatre, their iteration of The Fantasticks wraps up tonight with a back-to-basics, black box staging that moves along at a sprightly pace and offers some entertaining performances of much-beloved tunes like "Try to Remember," "They Were You," "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "I Can See It."
Schmidt's score features a surfeit of memorable tunes than can be easily overlooked or forgotten because they come from the show - which also features a top-flight libretto by Tom Jones - that is the world's longest running musical. Having just closed off-Broadway (and who knows how long it may be before the show is revived in New York City), The Fantasticks is as much a part of musical theater history as Show Boat, Oklahoma and any of the other musicals that have shifted paradigms in the genre and have provided formulaic structure for many of the shows that have followed.
The tale of a "boy meets girl, boy and girl are caught up in a romantic fantasy, the real world comes crashing in and the boy and girl must decide what they really want in life, while their meddling fathers manipulate and cajole them into making the choices they deem worthy," The Fantasticks has remained significant in musical theater for several reasons. There's a relatively small cast (only eight actors are needed), the score can be played passionately and memorably on a single keyboard if needed, and the story is, well, timeless and engaging.
Think of it this way, were it not for The Fantasticks (which debuted in 1960 and ran until 2017), Jason Robert Brown never would have written The Last Five Years (oh, perhaps he would have, but even the most gifted artist needs inspiration, no?) and many of the other musicals produced during that almost 60-year time period would have been different in their method of storytelling and scope. This is my review and that's my story - and I'm sticking with it.
Directed by Ronnie Meek, Springhouse Theatre's production of The Fantasticks is as appealing as any we've seen, thanks largely to his excellent casting choices. Tiffany Day and Brandon Day, husband and wife in real life, are sweetly convincing as wide-eyed and innocent Luisa and Matt, whose carefree winsomeness is easily read as youthful foolishness. The characters struggle to make their fantasies real, although each is eager to provide their partner with what they deem to be the realization of shared dreams.
Tiffany is beautiful to watch (she looks so much like a young Ava Gardner that those of you who remember who Ava Gardner will be rendered breathless, while those of you who don't know who the Carolina-born and bred beauty is will be rushing to the Google machine to find out) and her lovely voice gives Luisa vibrant life. Paired with her own offstage sweetheart, they are comfortable with each other and their onstage interaction comes from a place of shared love and commitment. Brandon, in his stage debut, is perhaps most noteworthy in this production, showing off an eagerness to bring his character to life with energy and commitment. Matt's music may not be the best choice for his voice, yet he manages to convince audiences otherwise with his focus and delivery.
As the pair's fathers, Dani Amendola is raucously fun as Bellomy (Luisa's father) and Warren Sager is officiously pleasant as Matt's dad, Hucklebee. The two men play well off each other and provide a kind of daft fatherly wisdom that's sure to entertain and engage. Jack Gilpin very nearly steals the show as Henry, the old actor called upon to overact, chew the scenery and divert attention when the plot calls for it. Gilpin is a skilled actor whose talents have only deepened over the years. Meanwhile, as Henry's loyal sidekick Mortimer (aka The Man Who Dies), Kenn Stilger is delightful - his zany hijinks ensure that laughs are abundant and his adept physical performance keeps them coming. As The Mute, Bethany Hays adds to the onstage antics with meaningful looks and beatific expression.
But, as with so many productions of The Fantasticks, the show really belongs to Will Sevier, the Nashville stage veteran with a beautiful voice whose past credits are notable and who adds the role of El Gallo to his burgeoning resume. Sevier sounds as good as ever and his El Gallo is interesting, perhaps even intriguing. Sevier's smooth-as-silk performance adds a fillip of romance and mystery to the proceedings, even as he provides a soupcon of danger to the tale. His show-opening rendition of "Try to Remember" is as good as it gets.
Finally, attention and accolades should be heaped upon young Makai Keur, the 15-year-old wunderkind who accompanies the actors at the keyboard. His performance is noteworthy because of his youth, to be certain, but it's most satisfying in his skill and confidence in playing the score so commandingly.
The Fantasticks. Music by Harvey Schmidt. Libretto by Tom Jones. Directed by Ronnie Meek. Presented by Springhouse Theatre Blackbox, at Springhouse Church, Smyrna. Through August 19. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission).