Thursday, July 8, 2010

the fantasticks

Here's my latest Denver Post piece, on "The Fantasticks" playing at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

I have to say, it's a helluva show. Looking over this now, I fear I came off as too persnickety, too "critic-sounding" for lack of a better phrase. You have to find a way to say what you saw happen up there there, though, no two ways about it. If someone sounded a little flat, a critic would be remiss not to mention it, right?

Still and all, I laughed my ass off at this show--much to the chagrin of the old woman sitting next to me--and I would see this again.

(original text follows. link above to the edited--and probably better--version.)

Emily Van Fleet and Nick Henderson in "The Fantasticks."



THE FANTASTICKS

"It struck me that the movies had spent more than half a century saying, ‘They lived happily ever after’ and the following quarter-century warning that they'll be lucky to make it through the weekend. Possibly now we are now entering a third era in which the movies will be sounding a note of cautious optimism: ‘You know, it just might work.’" -- Nora Ephron


If ever there was a theatrical trope that deserved to be taken down a peg, it’s the idea of “happily ever after.” Where is this place? Do I need a passport? What language do they speak?

The truth is the borders of this mythical land are impenetrable. There are no people there, only phantasms of people, only dreams. And it was this notion that Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt illustrated when they penned “The Fantasticks” in 1960.

That’s not to say it’s a cynical show; there is a sweetness at the heart of it. But considering the suffocating, overweening optimism of entertainment at the time--some of the biggest Broadway musicals the previous year were “Destry Rides Again” and the “The Sound of Music”--to poke fun at love and happy endings was a bold risk, paying off in 17,000-some performances over a 42-year run.

As the Colorado Shakespeare Festival continues to explore material outside the Bard’s canon, taking up this venerable musical comedy seems entirely appropriate, not only for its numerous Shakespearean references, but also for its timelessness.

The play opens on Mute (Lenne Klingaman) soon joined by El Gallo (Seth Pantich). They are our guides, the Penn and Teller who show us two households, and the wall the parents have built in order to keep their kids apart.

As we soon learn, the parents are actually using reverse psychology to try to broker a marriage between Luisa (Emily Van Fleet) and Matt (Nick Henderson), two perfectly dimwitted youths in love with love.

Following a fake abduction perpetrated by El Gallo and a pair of hapless vaudevillian actors (the hilarious Sam Sandoe and Ian Anderson) and Matt’s “heroic” rescue of his beloved, the families end the first act in tableau under the light of a painted cardboard moon.

But Jones and Schmidt are just getting started.

Act Two opens with the actors still in blackout grumbling and cursing as they move to take up their positions. The sun comes up and we first begin to see that happily ever after is actually a very long time indeed.

Excellent songs and genuinely funny writing along with numerous tongue-in-cheek cracks written into the fa├žade of theatre have made “The Fantasticks” such a beloved show. All the usual tricks are out in the open: El Gallo addresses the audience; during a rain sequence Mute sprinkles enough glitter on the couple to stock a Dallas strip club; Gallo and Mute use a strip of fabric to signify the wall.

And director Sands Hall as gathered a game cast, with a few minor quibbles.

Casting Hucklebee as a mom instead of a dad was brilliant, and Tammy Meneghini is wonderful, as is her counterpart, Timothy Orr as Bellomy.

Emily Van Fleet is hilarious as Luisa, and she also possesses a tremendous singing voice, filling the house even when she is facing upstage.

Unfortunately this isn’t the case for all the performers. The decision was made to stage the show in the round, which in this case meant putting two sections of seats and risers on stage, separated by a ramp. And while it’s fun to watch the audience members on display as they go from stiff and nervous to genuine enjoyment, the upstage space is just too deep and absorbs all sound directed that way.

This is problematic, especially for Seth Pantich as El Gallo, as his lower register just isn’t strong enough no matter which direction he’s facing, marring an otherwise excellent performance.

As Matt, Nick Henderson is a perfect youthful airhead, with a powerful voice that stands up well to Van Fleet’s. He sometimes takes too long to climb to the note he’s supposed to be singing, however, and thus sounds slightly flat.

The show as whole doesn’t suffer tremendously however. Both cast and director have shown us once again the truth at the heart of the Fantasticks: it’s impossible to know happiness without a counterpoint of sadness.

Besides, isn’t happily ever after really just a series of ‘happy-right-nows’ that have been strung together?
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