BWW Review: THE FANTASTICKS at ArtisTree Musical Theatre Festival

BWW Review: THE FANTASTICKS at ArtisTree Musical Theatre Festival

BWW Review: THE FANTASTICKS at ArtisTree's Musical Theatre Festival

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take a road trip to southern Vermont to review the second show of ArtisTree's second Musical Theatre Festival for a couple of reasons: the first was that, while I had listened to the Broadway recording of The Fantasticks multiple times over the years--even considering directing it at one point--I had never actually seen it performed live.

The second reason I was giddy with anticipation was that I had first learned about this arts organization when it was in its relative infancy several years ago; I hadn't stayed up-to-date on its activities and it appeared that it had grown and flourished quite a bit over the ensuing years. This relatively new festival seemed an auspicious sign that the audience for high quality theater was continuing to grow and thrive in a community not too far afield from my home base in the Champlain Valley.

The bucolic drive through the early fall foliage and quaint, southern Vermont villages was an apt prelude to a musical that likewise captures a nostalgic sense of times past, youth, innocence, and storytelling delivered in pure, poetic form. El Gallo, played by Scott Moreau, opens the show with Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' iconic number that starts:

"Try to remember the kind of September

When life was slow and oh so mellow

Try to remember the kind of September

When grass was green and grain so yellow"

Moreau's baritone was expressively rich and pitch perfect. Jerry Orbach casts an awfully big shadow for anyone taking on this pivotal role but from the first note, I was certain we were in for an exquisite afternoon of music and magic.

Indeed, the entire ensemble was incredibly strong and they worked together seamlessly. The young lovers, played by Sarah Lasko and Nick Kuhn, were pictures of wholesome innocence; the fathers, Michael McAssey and James Rio were a delightful duo, cast in the mold of an old-time Vaudeville comedy act.

Ken Prymus was a special delight, emerging as Henry from a large trunk along with his trusty--albeit a bit fatally-inclined--sidekick Mortimer, played by Collen Doyle. The two had a chemistry that was so fun to watch, with Prymus' elaborate melodrama complementing Doyle's all-business approach to the art of dying.

Last, but certainly not least, our Mute. Played by Renée Kathleen Koher, the Mute serves to bear witness to the unfolding story--a yin to El Gallo's yang. Her stoic intensity offered an indisputable commentary that somehow implicates the audience in the meaning made, the judgement passed. With the most minute gesture, glance or shift in posture, she communicates amazing amounts of information to the audience and serves as a point of monochromatic stillness and subtly in an otherwise larger-than-life pageant of color and music.

Kudos, too, to the production team. Jeff Perri's set design was perfectly balanced--simplicity with artful embellishment. While I couldn't decipher the deeper meaning (if indeed, there was any) behind the handful of chairs and empty picture frames that decorated the vertical spaces of the set, their aesthetic appeal was charming and whimsical, like the musical itself.

The lighting and sound were also knockouts. Rider Q. Stanton used vocal reverb, in particular, to great effect to differentiate when El Gallo was in the action and when he was breaking out to the more epic role of narrator. When all actors are miked in such a small (85-seat) house, balance can be tricky, but it was flawlessly blended. Alex Stevens' creative and effective lighting design wowed. The 40+ hanging bare bulbs, tight spotlight operation by Christine Porter, and crisp lighting cue shifts greatly enhanced the production, creating mood, moonlight, intolerable sun, unbearable darkness with bold dexterity.

Tomina Parvanova and Josh D. Smith were masterful as the harpist and pianist respectively. The instruments are characters in the musical, too, and they playfully inhabited the world, making the actors' lyrical lines come to life without rushing or overshadowing each performance.

Director and Choreographer Gary John La Rosa took a supremely talented ensemble and an accomplished production team and crafted a show that played to the strengths of each, while maximizing the potential of a small theater to create a small, beautiful piece of art.

The creative team at ArtisTree has indeed made something very special here in southern Vermont. The Musical Theatre Festival, running in the shoulder season from August to October, beckons audiences to extend and suspend their summer dreaming for just a little longer--at least until the leaves change and fall, as they inevitably do.

This short, sweet festival will inevitably end, as well. Be sure not to miss this superb production, playing through the end of the month. Then save the date for the final festival production of SUDS: The Rocking 60s Musical, playing from October 4-20. If The Fantasticks is any indication, the closing show of the festival is sure to satisfy.

The Fantasticks at ArtisTree's Musical Theatre Festival plays through September 29 at the Grange Theatre, 2095 Pomfret Road, South Pomfret, VT 05067 $30-35. 802-457-3500

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From This Author Stacy Raphael