By Philip Pearce
THE FANTASTICKS holds the distinction of having logged in a record-breaking 42 years Off Broadway followed by a steady stream of regional productions. I saw one of them somewhere on the Monterey Peninsula many long years ago. But all I remember is a tenor facing a soprano over the top of a wall and somebody else singing a ‘September Song’ not by Kurt Weill that I couldn’t get out of my head for weeks.
The long range result of all that was I came to the Morgan Stock lobby last weekend almost as open to a fresh new experience as the gaggle of teens and twenty-somethings who milled around me and my friends Marc and Frances as we waited for the doors to open on a brand new MPC version of this time-tested musical. That I recalled so little about the earlier event also convinces me that it couldn’t have been anywhere near as endearing, tuneful, funny and beautiful to look at as this new one.
Director Justin Matthew Gordon and a wonderful cast have created two and a quarter hours of almost pure delight. Eric Maximoff’s set is a starlit gem that keeps shifting into exciting new shapes and tones at the hands of a team of dancer/mimes choreographed by Nicole Cofresi and there’s great singing supported by an all-girl string sextet.
Act I is all moonlight and roses, illusion and trickery. A puzzling brigand called El Gallo, played by the forceful Michael Blackburn who also organized the music, immediately sets the tone of romantic enigma with that haunting “Try to Remember” song. He moves on through the act, aiding, abetting and narrating key plot points with a cynical ease that makes you wonder whether he’s a sage or a charlatan or both.
He’s joined by a tuxedoed Mute, mimed by the provocative and unpredictable Sarah Horn, who hoists the moon into the starry sky, distributes roses, scatters raindrops and tree petals and takes on the role of the wall set up by a pair of feuding fathers. Their aim is to separate the lovesick Matt Huckabee from his dreamy next-door neighbor Luisa Bellomy. Matt is tall, dark and eloquent, stuffed full of abstract romantic ardor, Luisa is small and starry-eyed with a soprano voice that lilted enchantingly on Saturday but sometimes masked the lyrics. MacKenna Wilson and Kevin Matsumoto create a charming pair of lovers, so bubble-headed they don’t realize their respective Papas are actually bosom buddies and have manufactured the wall and a fake feud to push their kids into love and marriage.
How can a feud and a wall do that? Easy! Huckabee (Mark Purcell) and Bellomy (Peter Hoffman) are seasoned enough parents to know all you have to do to make your children do what you want them to do is to insist they mustn’t do it. Like a pair of veteran hoofers from 1930s vaudeville, Purcell and Hoffman explain their weird parenting strategy in a razzle-dazzle song and dance duet called “Never Say No.”
The next trip-wire in the match-making scam is to persuade the lovers that the fake feud has ended. Just tell them? Well, yes, but any light-hearted musical needs fancy complications, so the wily dads cook up a scheme to stage a phony abduction of the lovely Luisa. That will provide the bookish Matt with an incentive to turn hero, defeat the kidnappers in a spectacular phony sword fight, causing the phony feud to melt into neighborly gratitude, giving way to love, marriage and the happy ending everyone’s been longing for.
To rehearse and stage the kidnapping, Bellomy and Huckabee turn to (who else?) the sneaky and resourceful El Gallo. He promptly casts two has been hams, who pop up out of a theatrical costume trunk and report for duty as an unconvincing two-man team of kidnapper pirates. Gary Bolen is a treat to watch as the Old Actor Henry, all histrionic bravado and crushed ego. His specialty is mangled Shakespeare while his cohort, the mischievous and stumble-footed Douglas Duffy Johnson, is best known for on-stage dying. Together they turn the fake abduction into a scrambled ballet of tangled arms, legs and pratfalls that would do credit to the Keystone Cops and had me laughing long and loud.
Matt does his stuff, the parental plan works, the “warring” neighbors unite in a family photograph and a heartfelt rendition of a song appropriately entitled “Happy Ending.”
But it’s only the end of Act 1! Writer Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt have raced through a succession of the kinds of silly tricks and deceptions and misunderstandings that stretch credulity but keep the plots of lightweight musicals bubbling along. Heading for the lobby at half time, I asked myself what else there was that could happen.
If you already know and remember Act 2, you know the answer. If you don’t, I’m not going to tell you. Except to say that it begins with that busy Mute hauling down the soft silver moon and replacing it with a hot glaring sun and that Jones and Schmidt prove that, charming as it is, The Fantasticks isn’t just a nice piece of theatrical cotton candy.
It’s well worth catching, even if you’ve seen it before. It plays weekends till August 12th.
Photo by Sarah Horn