The Sierra Madre Playhouse revives the world’s longest-running musical The
Fantasticks in a production so perfectly cast, so beautifully performed, so
imaginatively directed, and so gorgeous to look at that I finally
understand why the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical chalked up 17,162
performances over its 42-year off-Broadway run.
I’d always understood the appeal of Jones and Schmidt’s songs. “Try To
Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” quickly became standards covered by
everyone from Barbra Streisand to Ed Ames to Harry Belafonte to Duke
Ellington to Gladys Knight & The Pips, and gems like “I Can See It” and
“They Were You” undoubtedly inspired many a listen to the Original Cast
Recording, including my own.
Even naysaying yours truly had to admit to the quaint charm of The
Fantasticks’ tale of young lovers Matt and Luisa tricked by their
matchmaking fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy into falling in love
precisely *because of* their dads’ supposed feud. Add to that a mysterious
narrator known as El Gallo, a pair of ancient actors straight out of a Fractured
Fairytale and a character known only as “The Mute” and I could see the makings
of an entertaining chamber musical.
Still, I’d always found The Fantasticks rather a bore. Its two lovers
seemed a generic pair with a love story that made Maria and Captain Von
Trapp’s seem positively acidic by comparison. Luisa’s dreams of “Much More”
seem stuck way back in the Eisenhower ‘50s. (“I’d like to waste a week or
two and never do a chore, to wear my hair unfastened so it billows to the
floor.”) And as for that bizarre Act Two sequence in which Luisa sees Matt
being tortured over and over, only to be told by El Gallo to “look through
the mask,” upon which she sees life through rose-colored glasses again and
again? I just didn’t get it.
That’s why co-directors James Fowler and Barbara Schofield’s simple yet
exquisite production on the Sierra Madre Playhouse proscenium arch stage
has come as such a revelation. Stripped down to basics yet brimming with
imagination and flair, this Fantasticks makes crystal clear the musical’s
core message—“Without a hurt, the heart is hollow”—a life lesson learned by
young Matt and Luisa in their journey from innocence to knowledge to
disappointment to an understanding of the true meaning of love. (Even that
“look through the mask” sequence made sense this time round as part of
Fowler and Schofield are aided immeasurably in conveying this message by their two
young stars, Daniel Bellusci and Kelsey Hainlen, who bring Matt and Luisa
to vivid, heartstrings-touching life.
Casting performers as young as Bellushi and Hainlen (one is still in high
school and the other looks as if she could still be) makes us believe in
the innocence and purity of their first love in a way that actors who look
20something (or even older) could never do. Add to that two absolutely
glorious voices, boy/girl-next-door good looks, and stage presence and
acting chops beyond their years, and Luisa’s hopes and dreams, her
infatuation with Matt, and Matt’s with her no longer seem “Eisenhower-era”
but simply young and pure and innocent.
John Szura and Peter Miller are terrific as the initially conspiratorial (and
later battling) dads Hucklebee and Bellomy, the former a fan of pruning,
the latter a proponent of watering, and both of them much preferring the
predictability of gardening over the uncertainty of parenting because, as
they sing, when you “plant a radish, [you] get a radish. Never any doubt.
That’s why I love vegetables; you know what you’re about!”
Barry Schwam and Barry Saltzman steal every scene they are in as strolling
players Henry (aka The Old Actor) and Mortimer (aka The Man Who Dies), with
a Cockney Saltzman’s hilariously extended (and extended) death throes well
worth the round of applause they generate.
As The Mute, a marvelous Helen Frederick (looking like Audrey Hepburn circa
Funny Face) observes the action with emotions ranging from bemusement to
sadness written on her oh-so expressive face, hands out props, plays the
wall, and sprinkles glittery raindrops and snowflakes on the star-crossed
young lovers, in these and other ways proving invaluable to the production.
Michael Anthony looks the part of El Gallo and sings quite nicely, but his
performance could benefit from more spontaneous, expressive, heart-felt
Musical director Michael Grady deserves highest marks for both his vocal
coaching and his impeccable live keyboard accompaniment, one which not only
gives us piano notes but multiple other instruments as well. Sound designer
Schwam insures that Grady’s instrumentals never overpower the cast’s
vocals, and the Sierra Madre Playhouse’s excellent acoustics do the rest.
Schofield, Ward Callaway, and Dan Bergman have designed a set that
preserves The Fantasticks’ basic simplicity—a ladder, some benches, and a
box or two to hold Anne Marie Atwan’s props—yet this is no black-production
(emphasis on black) but one that comes to iridescent, rainbow-colored life
as Sammy Ross’s ever-changing lighting design both illuminates the set’s
backdrop and bathes the stage in vivid blues and oranges and reds and
purples as befits the mood of the moment.
Holly Victoria’s costumes are colorful and character-perfect. Note: All but the
photo just above feature rehearsal garb and not Victoria’s splendid
costumes, and should have been reshot. Also, conspicuously missing from The
Fantasticks’ playbill is a list of songs and whom they are performed by, an
absolute must for any musical.
Jade Cagalawan is stage manager and John Dimitri assistant stage manager.
The Fantasticks is produced by Callaway and Cooper.
Continuing the roll The Sierra Madre Playhouse has been on with productions
as stellar as this past year’s Incident At Vichy, Driving Miss Daisy, and
God’s Man In Texas, Fowler and Schofield’s The Fantasticks has made a
believer out of this reviewer. A crowd-pleaser for ages eight and up, this
is one Fantastick production of a musical theater legend.