THE FANTASTICSMusic by Harvey Schmidt,Lyrics and Book by Tom Jones
Circle Theatre in Association with Texas Christian University
Director: Harry Parker
Music Director: Alan Shorter
Choreography: Jennifer Engler
Scenic Design: Clare Floyd DeVries
Costume Design: Brian Clinnin
Lighting Design: John Leach
Props Design: John Harvey
Sound Design: David H. M. Lambert
Stage Manager: Karima Abdulla
Key board: Alan Shorter
Harp: Becky Scherschell
Henry ----------- David Coffee
Matt ------------ Anthony Fortino
Luisa ----------- Alison Hodgson
Bellomy --------- Doug Jackson
Hucklebee ------- Brian Mathis
El Gallo -------- Justin Bryant Rapp
The Mute -------- Sophie Smith
Mortimer -------- Shane Strawbridge
Reviewed Performance: 9/24/2011
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Elements of the story used by Schmidt and Jones go back to the ancient myth of Pyramus and Thisbe immortalized by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, as well as Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, but primarily Rostand's Les Romanesques.
Originally called Joy Comes to Deadhorse, the show appeared in its first version at the University of New Mexico in 1956. Then, after substantial rewriting, it appeared on a bill with other new one-acts at Barnard College for a week in 1959. The next year, on May 3rd, The Fantasticks opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse off-Broadway in New York where it went on to break musical theatre records.
Again from the website, the show's plot was summarized this way: a boy and girl fall in love, yearn for the dangerous attractions of the world outside, and then find fulfillment in each other's arms, back in their own back yard where it all began. Amazing that a funny, sunny musical about love could have such lasting appeal!
If you are of a "certain age" and have fond memories of the music from this show being part of the sound track to your own young romance, the first few notes of the overture alone will bring a smile to your lips and a lump to your throat. That is certainly the case as the lights dim at Circle Theatre, and the piano and harp begin to play. All over the theatre, couples seem to cuddle a little closer as they "Try to Remember."
And what a journey this Circle Theatre and TCU collaboration is! I cannot remember ever hearing vocals so stunningly prepared. Unamplified ? a rarity these days ? and nuanced, the voices give shaded readings of each song. Dynamics, diction, and tempo all blend to produce music that is a sheer joy to hear. I can only think that this precise preparation is the work of music director Alan Shorter who, in conjunction with the dedication of his cast, produces the best sounds possible. Mr. Shorter also plays the piano for the show with Becky Scherschell providing accompaniment on the harp.
Entering the intimate space, a perfect venue for this piece, we see what appears to be a floating platform upstage with a pole at each corner. A large banner hangs at the back with the familiar logo of the title, "The Fantasticks," painted on it. On either side of the platform against the back wall are two large chests and various props. A chair and other props hang on the wall. Downstage center is another chest that we will come to learn also contains many of the various props needed for the show. Along with a bench, this is all the scenery there is to create the magic. The music begins and we are greeted by The Mute, wonderfully played by Sophie Smith with grace and magical gestures, who introduces each of the family members and El Gallo. They establish their characters with movement, attitude and reactions as they take their place in an opening tableau. The costumes by Brian Clinnin illuminate and coordinate the actors so that each individual and each relationship is visually enhanced.
El Gallo, who is also The Narrator, is played by Justin Bryant Rapp who sings the opening song ,"Try to Remember", possibly the most familiar of the show's tunes, introducing the story and setting the tone for the remainder of the show. Mr. Rapp looks dashing in his black and red outfit, moves nicely, and sings very well. He perhaps lacks some of the "danger" and command of the stage the character should exhibit, along with the maturity to make us believe in his wisdom, but his dedication to the role is obvious and he cuts an exciting figure throughout.
The Narrator introduces Luisa, The Girl, who is played by Alison Hodgson, a senior at TCU in the Theatre program. After her opening monologue, which is utterly charming but surely one of the most difficult to present in a believable manner, she sings "Much More" to explain herself even further. Miss Hodgson is lovely to look at and has a beautiful singing voice, and delivers both the difficult opening monologue and the song with presence and skill. If she doesn't quite present the naivet? of a 16 year old, it ultimately doesn't affect her overall characterization. Her voice and graceful movements and her believable interplay with Matt, The Boy, carry her through. She evidently plans to go to New York this spring upon graduation, and with luck, should find a career.
The Narrator also introduces Anthony Fortino as The Boy, Matt, who makes us believe immediately in his character. His body language, delivery of lines and fine singing voice create a typical young man in love with life and love. As a freshman in the TCU Theatre program he makes an impressive professional debut. As he and Miss Hodgson sing the lovely duet "Metaphor", we become even more aware of how the use of dynamics, the shadings of the rise and fall of the melody, and the careful attention to diction and meaning are paying off. Absolutely charming.
Next come the fathers, with Doug Jackson as Bellomy, The Girl's Father, and Brian Mathis as Hucklebee, The Boy's Father. With distinct characterizations and a prop each sets up his own little world. These veteran actors take charge of the stage and we in the audience know we're in capable hands. Mr. Mathis is surely the military man he tells us he is and his no-nonsense approach to life is carried through beautifully. Mr. Jackson comes on doing a sort of Jack Benny impression and fussing over his garden, and there we have two living, breathing characters to watch and believe in. Their duet, "Never Say No", had all the parents in the audience chuckling in recognition. The plot is set up: the young couple is being deliberately kept apart by a wall, only to be brought together by the "reverse psychology" of their fathers, and we are off and running.
The famous, or infamous, "Rape Ballet", which is now called the "Abduction Ballet," follows. It seems that in 1960 when the show was first introduced, enough people still knew the classical meaning of the word to understand the Sabine Women reference (it is mentioned in the dialogue). As times changed and the meaning became more associated with violence against women, the writers changed the words to better fit the sensibilities of the audience. Indeed, some early productions were closed down just because of the very title of the number. Of course those closing them down had neither seen nor heard the context or the song, but when has that ever changed anything?!
Having only ever seen the old incarnation of the number, I feel the change lacks the "oomph" of the original. The comic "frisson" of scandal and parental outrage at the initial misunderstanding is gone and so is some of the fun.
It is in preparation for the abduction that the last two characters are introduced. And what an introduction it is! From the two chests against the back wall come Shane Strawbridge as Mortimer, aka "The Man Who Dies", in quasi American Indian gear over long johns, and David Coffee as Henry, The Old Actor, also in long johns. Well, folks, buckle your seat belts! With the help of a few choice costume pieces and wigs/hats, these two consummate hams take over the stage and devour what little scenery there is! Mr. Strawbridge's death scene is worth the price of admission ten times over and watching Mr. Coffee's portrayal of The Old Actor is a master class in comic timing and characterization. We are all laughing so hard, and are so blessed by their skills that the evening truly becomes magical. Watch Mr. Strawbridge pull and shoot an arrow! See Mr. Coffee's tragic disappointment when The Narrator has not seen his Hamlet or his Romeo! Their scene is a "set piece" that should be filmed and shown in every acting class in the country. The actual ballet itself becomes a little anti-climatic after this display. But then, what could compete?!
Of course the boy rescues the girl and the first act comes to a close with a "happy ending" as we are left to wonder what comes next after being teased with some verbal and physical clues. As with any show that wants to make a major shift in the second half, there are obstacles to overcome. The audience comes back to a more thoughtful and darker act, and achieving that mood swing can be tricky. It is to the credit of the wonderful direction by Harry Parker that the shift ultimately works. His skill is evident throughout the evening in the terrific pacing and staging and the characterizations of the actors, and is helped immensely by the choreography of Jennfer Engler. This may also be the most integrated use of dance and movement I have ever seen in a production of this show.
Highlights of the second act are the duet between Matt and El Gallo in "I Can See It", (though Mr. Rapp doesn't quite have the lower register for it) and "Round and Round" by The Girl, El Gallo and the company. In the first, Mr. Fortino, as Matt, makes a clear transformation to manhood, and in the second, Miss Hodgson gradually becomes more adult, which carries over into her scene with El Gallo where she gives him "her most precious possession". We get another terrific comic song performance from the fathers in "Plant a Radish", and then after each has learned some hard lessons, the bittersweet reconciliation between the boy and the girl in "They Were You". As the evening comes to a close, everyone, including those of us in the audience, is older and wiser and perhaps able to look at the world more clearly without having to hide behind the mask, and without the glitter and sham of the carnival.
Go to Circle Theatre on Sundance Square and see this show. The singing, the acting, the staging, and the sheer joy of the experience are worth the trip.
Circle Theatre, 230 West 4th St., Fort Worth, TX 76102
Thusday evenings: $25-$30; Saturday matinees: $35-$30
Friday/Saturday evenings: $30-$35
Students and seniors receive a $5 discount on any full-priced ticket. Student Rush tickets are available for half of full-price, at half hour before show time.
October 14th is "University Night" at Circle Theatre.
Student tickets will be available for $5. Faculty and staff tickets are $10. All are available on a first-come firs