THE FANTASTICKSWritten and composed by Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt
Stage and Music Director - Mary Medrick
Assistant Director - Neale Whitmore
Choreographer - Kelly McCain
Costumer - Suzi Cranford
Stage Manager - Tony Adams
Assistant Stage Manager - Shaun J. Walsh
The Mute - Aaron Green
The Boy's Father, Hucklebee - Jerome Stein
The Girl's Father, Bellomy - Rick Tett
The Girl, Luisa - Emily Ford
The Boy, Matt - Sam Swenson
The Narrator, El Gallo - Frank Rosamond
The Old Actor, Henry - Charles Beachley
The Man Who Dies, Mortimer - Nick Mann
Pianist - Mark Miller
Harpist - Shanna Griffith
Reviewed Performance: 12/2/2011
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The Fantasticks is somewhat of an apt choice for Frisco Community Theatre. The show was created by two college students at the University of Texas, and then opened at a small theatre festival at Barnard College in 1959. The show became a hit and opened Off-Broadway in 1960, running for 41 years and over 17,000 performances. The Fantasticks is the ultimate underdog story of Off-Broadway, and it's a great show for the newly revived Frisco Community Theater. After losing their original space in 2007, the group re-opened last year in its new space, the Frisco Discovery Center. Both the show and the theater have bucked the trend and found an audience for their work.
However, The Fantasticks is also a unique, eccentric musical that is as challenging as it is allegorical. A narrator explains the entire story to the audience while a mute removes items from a trunk as props, set dressing or backdrops. The show exhibits influences from Brecht, melodrama, Shakespeare, and more. Frisco Community's production of The Fantasticks has good talent, a solid concept, and great design. Unfortunately, the show never quite gets off the ground.
Mary Medrick's concept for The Fantasticks is close to the original production: the stage is almost bare, forcing the audience to imagine the world around the characters. Everything in The Fantasticks is meant to highlight the performer. The lyrics of the songs are often based on poetic descriptions of times past ("Try to Remember"), the difficulty in raising children ("Plant a Radish"), and the bright lights of an unknown world ("I Can See It"). There's even a song in the show titled "A Metaphor".
With almost no set or props, Medrick uses the Black Box Theater to her advantage, using the empty space to highlight the bare-bones staging and the constant presence of the cast on stage. Medrick's sense of staging and image is also extremely adept, with actors often frozen in tableaux until their moment onstage. Each scene is designed to draw focus where it is needed, making the staging one of the strongest elements of The Fantasticks.
However, there's disconnect between the director and performers in executing this bare-bones concept. Luisa is explicitly described in the show as "insane", yet Emily Ford's performance never suggests this insanity. She only seems flighty and eccentric. The two fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, have serious numbers about the struggles of raising children to be upright and happy in the world. Jerome Stein and Rick Tett perform them as song-and-dance numbers, without real context. Medrick's concept is highly stylized, but the performances aren't always crisp and detailed enough to clearly execute her vision. Though Medrick's concept fits the show perfectly, it gets lost in
Emily Ford and Sam Swenson give good performances as Luisa and Matt; both maintain the wide-eyed, na?ve look of two young lovers matched by fate. Both hesitate at times to commit fully to their characters, and each has trouble getting at the strong imagery present in their songs.
In the number "Round and Round", Luisa envisions Matt beaten, burned, and tortured while El Gallo clouds her sight with visions of dancing `round and round'. Ford doesn't ever seem truly disturbed by what seems like a frightful image of her love being tortured. Swenson, in "I Can See It", sings about a place "beyond that road" where good and bad are swirling in conflict. Swenson doesn't get this across, seeming stilted and unable to convey the point of the song. Ford and Swanson can portray the role of ing?nue quite well, but sometimes aren't able to find their character while singing.
Jerome Stein plays Matt's father, Hucklebee, with a wink to the audience. He is enjoyable, but often plays moments for laughs rather than finding the deeper emotions of fatherhood expressed in the show. Rick Tett, on the other hand, never settles in to his role as Bellomy, Luisa's father. Tett never looks comfortable onstage, and doesn't seem to gain confidence as the show progresses.
Bellomy delivers a monologue early in the play about how, when someone plants vegetables, they know what will grow. Yet when we `plant' children, we often "plant a radish" but get something completely different. The song "Plant a Radish" continues with this theme, but Tett and Stein never pick up on it. The earlier thread is missing in their performance and the song fails to advance the story. Both actors are talented but don't utilize the subtle cues that inform their characters.
Aaron Green as The Mute gives a great performance without words, dancing across the stage with banners, props, costumes and yes, confetti. He sometimes understates his role a bit, choosing to stay in the background rather than take a moment to involve his character in the story. Still, he performs a functional role with grace and style that always adds to the show.
Frank Rosamond is the narrator and the bandit El Gallo, who arranges the conflict that brings Matt and Luisa together. Rosamond is a truly great talent ? he has a deep, rich voice that rings throughout the Black Box Theater. His presence is always felt onstage even when he is not the focus. It's even more remarkable considering he isn't a professional actor ? according to his bio, "he is a regional vice president with the cable TV and online advertising firm Viamedia." Rosamond confidently leads the audience through the show and has a unique voice that begs to be heard.
The two standout performances come from Charles Beachley and Nick Mann as Henry and Mortimer, two actors employed by El Gallo to help stage his scheme. Beachley is superb as Henry, an aging Shakespearean actor who can't remember his sides anymore. Beachley is utterly natural in his delivery, and clearly understands his place in the show. His comic timing and convincing portrayal make him one of the best performers. Mann plays Mortimer, an actor whose specialty is dying in any number of ways. Mann, of course, dies spectacularly by arrow, writhing in pain and getting some of the best laughs of the night. Mann is a little overshadowed by Beachley, but the two are a confident pair that play off each other and are real strong points.
The design for The Fantasticks is one of the high points of the production. Suzi Cranford's costumes are a mix of styles, colors and designs that provide contrast to the black stage and precisely fit each character. An example: Luisa is dressed in a turquoise necklace and a flowing peasant dress while Matt wears thick-framed glasses, a blue dress shirt and navy slacks. Luisa's costume is indicative of her free spirit and capriciousness while Matt's costume reflects
his education and desire to learn. Each costume gives context to each character, playing upon the allegorical nature of the show.
The scenic and lighting design is also fantastic. With only a few instruments, a few backdrops and some well placed props, entire worlds are created. For "Soon It's Gonna Rain", a moon is hung downstage while blue sidelight and a green curtain frayed at the bottom is hung. All of this creates the image of a moonlit field where lovers are meeting in secret. It's one example of how thoughtful and original the design is. With very little, the designers for The Fantasticks have created a superb world.
Unfortunately, Kelly McCain's choreography doesn't match the other design elements, sometimes to the detriment of the show. During many of the songs, actors deliver songs completely still or seem to walk around the stage with no direct purpose. Actors' backs are frequently turned away from the audience, and because the performers are not amplified, their voices are swallowed by the theater. Both of the fathers' numbers ("Never Say No", "Plant a Radish") are choreographed with a hand movement and step combination that neither actor pull off with precision or investment. The choreography doesn't fit into the concept of the show, and the meaning of some songs is lost on the audience.
Ultimately, Frisco Community Theatre doesn't fully execute the vision of The Fantasticks. In their defense, I sometimes found myself lost in the labyrinth of allusion, metaphor, and allegory of the show. The Fantasticks is a surprisingly challenging piece of theater, and the company does its best to meet that challenge. Yet so many moments in Frisco Community Theatre's The Fantasticks are rushed, forced, or simply misunderstood by the actors that it overshadows the true talent and beautifully crafted scenes woven throughout the performance. The devil's in the details, and ultimately Frisco Community Theatre doesn't get the details right.
Frisco Community Theatre
Black Box Theater, Frisco Discovery Center, 8004 N. Dallas Parkway
Frisco, TX 75034
Plays through December 17th
Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, and Sunday matinees at 2:30pm Tickets are $16-$20, depending on the performance day.
For information and to purchase tickets, call 972-370-2266 or go online to www.friscocommunitytheatre.com