Rep Stage revives record-setting musical 'The Fantasticks'

May 06, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

If life and love were easy, we wouldn't have theater.

Few stage works get so quickly, so simply to the hard truths about growing up and getting by as "The Fantasticks," the musical that opened off-Broadway in 1960 and ran for a record-setting 42 years. 

Once in a while, it's nice to remember how we all have to go through complication, disappointment and disillusionment in the process of gaining a taste of something like wisdom. That's what this modest little show does so well.

"The Fantasticks" makes a welcome appearance this spring in a revival by Rep Stage, the professional company in residence at Howard Community College. I hoped for much more from this production in the way of polish and personality, and I would certainly have welcomed singing of greater distinction. But the musical's essence come through nicely nonetheless.

Longtime fans should find plenty to enjoy. Newcomers to the piece should be able to get a sense of why it struck such a resonant chord all those decades ago and is still embraced with such affection by so many. 

Using a 19th-century play by Edmund Rostand as a foundation, book/lyrics writer Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt crafted a neat little fable about two feuding fathers, their children and a wall. Shades of "Romeo and Juliet" (and a smidgen of "A Midsummer Night's Dream") filter through the plot early on, but a twist turns everything and everyone around by the end of the first act.

With humor, charm, well-crafted songs and maybe a little too much rhyming dialogue, "The Fantasticks" deftly delivers an age-old message about learning to see without filters, to reach a goal without guile.

The Rep Stage production gets that message across thanks especially to Stephanie Schmalzle as Luisa, the girl who prays early on, "Please, God, please, don't let me be normal," and subsequently discovers how satisfying ordinary can be. In addition to an endearing portrayal, the actress delivers the music in a sweet, mostly well-focused soprano.

As Matt, the almost-a-man who catches Luisa's heart and nearly loses it, Benjamin Lurye likewise does telling work. He and Schmalzle create one of the production's vocal highlights with their tender phrasing of "They Were You."   

Paul Edward Hope has the pivotal dual role of the Narrator and the cynical El Gallo, who "steals fancies." The actor is persuasive as the former, but could use more presence, dramatically and vocally, as the latter.

Michael Bunce (Boy's Father) and Darren McDonnell (Girl's Father) bring sufficient color to the proceedings, especially in their witty vaudeville-style duets. Lynette Rathnam handles the role of the Mute nimbly.

This musical's two plum assignments -- droll characters who pop out to help with El Gallo's schemes -- have been particularly well-filled. Peter Boyer has the right deadpan for The Man Who Dies. And Nigel Reed walks off with the show every time he clambers into view, and every time he makes one of his finely flourished exits. A masterful job. 

Directed by Rep Stage managing director Nancy Tarr Hart, the production is well-paced and has some wry touches along the way. Ilona Kessell's choreography is generally effective. Spot-on costumes (Denise Umland) and attentive lighting (Michael D. Klima) add a good deal to the staging.

Pianist Ross Scott Rawlings and harpist Meghan Gwyer play the score expertly. I just wish their offstage location didn't make them sound as if they were in a cistern.

Incidentally, the production follows Jones' revised text that dispenses with the original version's pronounced use of the word "rape" (as in abduction). Musical theater purists may object, but it's a sensible change to a work that has never lost its subtle power.

"The Fantasticks" runs through May 18.

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