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BWW Review: THE FANTASTICKS Enchants at freeFall Theatre

BWW Review: THE FANTASTICKS Enchants at freeFall Theatre

They've done it again. Give freeFall Theatre an iconic musical--like Into the Woods several years ago--and they will turn it on its head. But what to do with a presentational musical that is already turned on its head? And not just any old musical, but THE FANTASTICKS, the beloved record holder for the longest running musical anywhere? Well, leave it to the creative forces at freeFall to revitalize it and stir up this classic even further, with the addition of Avenue Q-like puppetry and other notable, new theatrical sleights of hand.

THE FANTASTICKS, with Harvey Schmidt's memorable music and Tom Jones' touching book and lyrics, is the romantic enchantment that we need to escape this crazed, fractured world (especially during this past crazed and fractured week, where it seems our country is more polarized than ever). For two hours, we can dive into this fable's world of love, separation, and the ultimate reuniting that feels so good. It's a beautiful show, gorgeously mounted, with a couple of questionable moves that do not detract from its overall loveliness.

freeFall Theatre is the ideal location for this particular musical magic. The show starts with the overture, thrillingly played as a duel on three pianos by the two actors portraying the fathers of two young lovers who are separated by a wall (think Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer Night's Dream): Michael Ursua as Hucklebee and Paul Helm as Bellomy. They do double-duty as the fathers and as the key musicians; it's incredible to see them choreograph their moves and play the pianos that galvanize the show. They are the lifeblood to this production. (Meredith Coffman is the third musician, a harpist who provides the soul to so many of the songs.) This is an instance where less is certainly more, and this choice (a band made up of only two pianists/cast members and a sole harpist) really helps with the theatricality of the piece. They are as much fun to watch as the actual production, and their duet, "Plant a Radish," became the show-stopper of the day. This is a shocker, since the song has never been one of my favorites. I love it when a re-creation of a throwaway tune can change my opinion, the making-lemons-into-lemonade cliché. And in the hands of Mr. Helm and Mr. Ursua, "Plant a Radish" became a masterpiece and the finest single moment of the musical.

While the overture plays, the cast sets up the costumes and set pieces, the trunks and props that will be used throughout. The Mute even poses Atlas-like with a paper moon on his shoulders.

And that's when we meet El Gallo, the part made famous Off-Broadway by Jerry Orbach. Here he is donned in top hat, long red coat, and a vest straight out of Haight Ashbury circa 1967. He's sort of a Ring Master for the story at hand, our Our Town-like narrator. He is filled with so much gusto and force, a true star turn. As played by Patrick Ryan Sullivan, he's bigger than life, filled with verve and even some danger. And he's so charismatic that we can't watch anyone else whenever he strides onstage. With his circus tricks and cowboy gait, he comes across as a little bit carnival barker wild and a little bit rock and roll swagger--Barnum meets Birdie. He's so much fun to watch, the perfect example of the joy of performing that every would-be actor should see. With his powerful, deep voice, he's in full command, and the stage is his to own. He hits you on all levels. Try holding back your tears in his version of the poignant "Try to Remember."

When Roxanne Fay as Henry and Daniel Schwab as Mortimer emerge from inside of a trunk, I heard someone in the audience mutter, "Oh wow!" In a transformative gray beard, Fay's Henry resembles an elfin Ian McKellen mixed with Sam Jaffe. She's such a precise actor, always filled with energy and life, but we seldom get a sense of coloring outside of the lines with her here, a sort comedic anarchy--that unexplained quality, a rambunctious unpredictability, that perhaps could be the heart of the character here. She certainly had it in her bravura turn in Jobsite's HIR earlier in the year (which was the best work I've ever seen her do and by far one of the year's finest performances). But she's an audience favorite here, and after she hit the money note of "Somewhere," she garnered appreciative applause as she exited the stage.

Daniel Schwab comes closer to that zaniness, and his prolonged death scene is a thing of beauty--he stabs himself over and over by a drum stick to feverish applause from the audience.

The versatile Nick Hoop, as The Mute, always stands out, even when he is relegated to the background, silently watching. For those of us who are used to some of his more verbose characters (he would make an incredible Louis Ironson years from now), it's a nice turn for the mum Mr. Hoop here. He's mostly expressionless, which may come across as sometimes weary or sometimes attitudinal, or maybe even dour. But the moment he drops snow on the young lovers at the end is as beautiful as this glorious FANTASTICKS gets.

Led by music director Michael Raabe, Grace Choi sings like an angel as Luisa, and as her love interest, Matt, Cameron Kubly looks like an Every Boy, a poster child of doomed love and the victim of a world that mistreats him. Their duets, in songs such as "Metaphor," "Celebration," "They Were You" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain," were thrilling.

But to quote a 1990's pop hit by Natalie Imbruglia, I'm torn. A day after watching the show, I'm still torn about one major aspect of the show, and I guess I'll continue to be for quite some time: I question the use of the puppets. (They brought to mind Avenue Q so much that I wanted to rename this production Avenue F.) Are they completely necessary here? In some ways, do they stop the chemistry between the actual Luisa and Matt? I know why director Eric Davis made this choice; he ingeniously took the meaning of the show's lines literally ("Take away the puppet play" and "We were just puppets"). But doesn't the puppetry deny the actors holding them the connection that we, the audience, need? Something was missing, and I think it stems from the actors dealing with the puppets rather than with each other. That said, James Silson's creations are wonderfully conceived and constructed, and they resemble Ms. Choi, Mr. Kubly and the two fathers quite closely. They certainly added a fresh look to THE FANTASTICKS, but at what cost? I was thankful when they were put away for good during Act Two.

Tom Hansen's set, in the round, is appropriately sparse, surrounded by the aforementioned three pianos and the harp. A mere ladder acts as the separating wall. I like the clever theatrical bits, like a blue ribbon in the hands of the Mute acting as a bird. At one point a trunk opens dramatically with a bright green glow and fog like something out of Indiana Jones' ark. And the magic-marking of Matt's "monkey suit," a white vinyl jumpsuit, is a dynamic theatrical choice; we get the sense of the brutal world seeing black marks scrawled across him (great costumes by David Covach). Hansen's lighting is sensational and gets the mood across just right.

A visionary director like Eric Davis has used his genius to create a delightful take on THE FANTASTICKS that must top your local must-see list. It will take you away from the worldly troubles, from the news cycle, from social media rants. It's an escape, theatrical magic, that we need now more than ever. I know I needed it and was thankful that I had a momentary reprieve from the news that inundates this less-than-fantastic world.

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From This Author Peter Nason