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Review: THE FANTASTICKS at College Of The Desert

Review: THE FANTASTICKS at College Of The Desert

Try to Remember Your First Love

Many decades ago when I was working on my theatre arts degree at Cal State Fullerton, I would drive into Los Angeles two or three times per year to see The Fantasticks, a musical with music by Harvey Schmidt and book/lyrics by Tom Jones (no, not that one). Most of us know it is the world's longest running musical, clocking some 42 years off-Broadway in New York. What you might not know is that it also had quite a long run in Los Angeles. For me, it was a very Zen moment with gentle piano and harp music, simple haunting songs, a magnificently simple script and eight characters, each of whom was enjoyable and relatable. I'm happy to report that College of the Desert's current production of The Fantasticks fully brings back that breeze of joyous nostalgia.

The story deals with two fathers (Terry Mac Lemore-Mullins and Carlos Mendoza) who live next door to each other. One has a son (Diego Jimenez), the other a daughter (Shelby Victoria). The fathers scheme that the best way to get their children interested in each other is to build a wall between the houses so the kids feel that they are defying their parents when they fall in love.

The evening is presided over by The Narrator (Cameron Merrihew), props and stage effects are handled in full view by The Mute (Yuka Nishiguchi), and the adventures introduce us to a geriatric actor, Henry (Guest Artist Michael Immel) and his colleague Mortimer (Austin T. Berry), an actor who specializes in death scenes.

The tone of the evening is set when the Narrator sings "Try to Remember." Merrihew's voice is sweet but had some soft moments on lower notes. In the course of the play he becomes El Gallo, an irresistible actor who agrees to stage an abduction of the girl and to allow the boy to win a sword battle, thereby making the boy a hero in the girl's eyes. Merrihew is in top form as he dons a black hat and swirls a cape, but his strongest moments for me were the poetic comments The Narrator uses to comment on the action. Harvey Schmidt's verse and Merrihew's delivery were a terrific combination..

The girl and boy are both delights. Victoria's voice is sweet and her presentation of songs is wonderful, though again she could have used a mic. Jimenez as The Boy has the strongest voice in the show and he uses his acting chops to bring his songs to life. Together they bring immense enjoyment as they try to express the romantic feelings they are experiencing for the first time.

The two fathers are virtually a Vaudevillian song and dance pair, and Director/Choreographer Janet Miller has staged their musical numbers down front, as if they are appearing in front of a stage curtain. Both men had strong voices, and they worked well together as they milked their laughs.

Director Miller scored a major coup when she persuaded guest artist Michael Immel to play the old actor, Henry. There are no program notes about any of the actors, but IMDB lists several films he has appeared in, and his performance as a doddering old trouper who lives in remembrances of past glories is a delight. It sets a standard for the student actors he is appearing with. As his sidekick Mortimer, Austin T. Berry brings the silly, likeable humor that he has demonstrated in previous COD productions.

Accompaniment is provided by Kurt Jordan on piano and Dr. Vanessa Fountain on harp. The original score was written for just these two instruments but since many productions can't supply the harp, I was happy when I saw it in place before the show. They are both superlative musicians and it was a joy to hear the music as it was designed to be heard.

The set is - and always has been - a simple platform in front of black curtains with a bedsheet-sized curtain hanging in front of it with the words "The Fantasticks" inked on it. Set and Lighting designer has stuck with that traditional look and it all works very well. Peter Mins designed the costumes and they are all at his normal excellence except The Boy. Every other character in the play looks like they are in costume. The Boy looks like he has just stepped out of Kohl's wearing a blue shirt, an argyle sweater, a jacket, two-toned shoes and glasses. I wish that he had matched the simplicity of The Girl's blue dress. As it was, the layers of clothing and glasses seemed to act as a shield, and the patterned sweater and shoes were at odds with the simple honesty of the two lovers. Otherwise, top marks for all costumes.

I spoke with Director/Choreographer Janet Miller after the show. She agreed that the simplicity of the show is actually its greatest difficulty - especially with today's students. Convincing young folks in 2022 that every line doesn't have a sneaky subtext was a chore. The characters have no guile - that is the charm of the show. Her efforts paid off because the production successfully carries us through a memory of a time in our lives "When dreams were kept beside our pillow." Ah, if only we could.....

The Fantasticks plays through November 20 at COD's Theatre Too. Friday and Saturday are at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $20, and available at the door. I urge you to come support these young actors

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