Romantic classic shines anew at Bay

Off-Broadway icon 'The Fantasticks ' enchants with spare set, strong voices

Theater Review

December 18, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The Fantasticks , off-Broadway's longest-running musical (1960-2002).

Its simple boy-girl story is a twist on Romeo and Juliet, with their scheming mothers pretending to be feuding neighbors who oppose their children's having a romantic relationship to ensure that they'll actually have one. The innocent teenagers fall in love to provide a moonlit happy ending in Act 1 and find problems when the sun rises in Act 2. Instead of getting married, they go their separate ways - the boy to see the world and the girl to discover a darker world at home.

A reason for this show's endurance is its enchanting score with music by Jones and lyrics by Schmidt. The best-known song still seduces us with its gentle reminder: "Try to remember the kind of September / When life was slow and oh so mellow," and ends appropriately with "Deep in December it's nice to remember / The fire of September that made us mellow." Other songs include, "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "Much More," a favorite popularized in the '60s by Barbra Streisand.

The Fantasticks is an excellent choice for Bay Theatre in its stylized combination of a commedia dell'arte improvisational platform and classic musical theater done within a sparse setting where the intimate space lends itself to an authentic production respecting the original. Actors address audience members directly to bring them into the action. No amplification is needed to allow the musical purity of the songs to shine through.

The minimalist set designed by Ken Sheats is a contemporary work of art. There are two large boxes from which actors retrieve their costumes at the start of the show to enhance the impromptu aspect. Also part of the set is a "tree" with spare step branches where actors climb and perch.

For this musical, Director Merry-Browne has assembled an ideal cast, headed by the narrator-antagonist and including youthful actors playing the couple along with two believable mothers and two scene-stealing roaming actors to provide laughs along with a mute character who communicates everyone's feelings. Together they contribute to the seamless pacing of the story.

Michael Padgett is a powerful Narrator and antagonist El Gallo, displaying a rich baritone that gets the evening off to a great start in his warm singing of "Try to Remember," and he also moves well in mock duels and in dance. His matinee idol looks don't hurt either, intensifying the effect of his eye contact with the audience.

Local actor John Dellaporta plays young Matt convincingly, projecting an innocent teen image, strong rapport with Louisa, and impressive vocal abilities that include breathing techniques to do justice to his every song.

Catherine Jones seems destined to play Louisa. She is believable when she says, "I'm 16 years old and everyday something happens to me. I hug myself till my arms turn blue. I am special. Please, God, don't let me be normal" as a prelude to singing "Much More," where she expresses the desire "to swim in a clear blue stream" and "go to town in a golden gown," bringing her own kind of rapture in her vocal styling.

As Louisa's mother, Bellamy, Nicole Halmos projects vivacity in dancing and singing, and she joins Barbara Pinolini as Matt's mother, Hucklebee, in some memorable vaudeville-type musical moments.

Bay's production underscores why The Fantasticks has endured as distinctive classic musical theater. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays through Jan. 24. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and students. Call 410-268-1333, or e-mail to reserve@baytheatre.org.

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