Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Fantasticks

‘THE FANTASTICKS’ pleases at Ensemble, but is that its total purpose?

‘THE FANTASTICKS,’ which is now being staged at Ensemble Theatre, has the honor of being the longest running show in musical theatre history. It opened off-Broadway in 1960 and ran until 2002, 17,162 performances. Not bad for a show that opened to generally blah reviews. Its investors received a 19,465% return on their original $16,500 investment.

Written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, the show features such classics as "Try to Remember," “They Were You,” and "Soon It's Gonna Rain."

The show is normally observed as a coming-of-age story featuring a starry-eyed teen female (Luisa) whose view of life has been honed by reading romance and swashbuckling novels and her equally naïve but self-proclaimed “worldly” boyfriend (Matt) who believes his college experiences have taught him all there is to know. Throw in two matchmaking fathers who scheme to get their children together, a suave rogue (El Gallo), a has-been Shakespearean actor and his “Indian” sidekick, a mute who plays a wall, and a prop person, and the play appears to be a slight bit of fluff, whose purpose is solely to delight audiences. Well, ‘taint so!

Yes, the first act is fluff…delightful fluff. And, in the Ensemble production, that segment, under the adept direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, is delightful. Brault leaves out no shtick in order to please the audience.

The second act, however, is a totally different matter. As reality of love and life set in, the girl’s fantasies are challenged. The disillusioned boy goes out to find the “real” world. The fathers argue. The question arises: as we each go round and round in the world, what is reality? Can we cover our eyes and escape from the truth of life simply by putting on a mask?

It is in the second act that the Ensemble production stumbles. When El Gallo, the mature worldly-wise swashbuckler, assumes the role of mentor and takes Luisa out of her walled-in world to see the real world, with all its faults, we need to truly gain an understanding of Schmidt and Jones’s existential message. The effect of the show basically centers on the staging and musical interpretation of the song “Round and Round.” We must see Matt, who has gone on his adventure, stumble and fall and come to a realization of life as it really is. We must share with Luisa her angst of not being totally able to put on her mask to hide the realities of existence….wars, famine, torture, cruelty.

In this production, the staging of “Round and Round” is one dimensional. Matt hangs as the Christ figure on the cross, never acting out the illusions of the song. The vocal and visual interpretation fail to stress the meaning of the words. The music fails to build to climax, thus avoiding the heightening of the needed tension. We never see Luisa gain awareness.

As the young lovers, Paul Rawlings (Matt) and Emma Ruck (Luisa) are basically charming. Rawlings often swallows the endings of words when he sings in the lower registers and Ruck sometimes gets a little shrill, but, in general, they both do a nice job. (BTW…at one point in the show’s long run off-Broadway, local actor and BW graduate Rex Nockingust played Matt.)

Mark Cipra (the boy’s father) acts well, but his voice is a shallow. Dan Call has strong vocal qualities, but sometimes forgets that he needs to blend, not dominate in duets.

The star of the show is George Roth as the Old Actor. He glows, dominating the stage in every entrance. His performance is luminous. He is ably supported by Dustin Jesberger as the non-Indian Indian who specializes in dying. Jon Gellott does everything he needs to do as the Mute.

Unfortunately, though he tries hard, Joe Monaghan is miscast as El Gallo. He needs to be suave, sensual and have worldly maturity. Monaghan just doesn’t control the stage as, for example, Jerry Orbach did in the original production. He also doesn’t have the vocal chops to belt out “Round and Round” and to create emotional illusions in “Try to Remember.”

I understand that Brault’s original concept for the show was to cast two males in the leading romantic roles. The idea was, I’ve been told, vetoed. Too bad, it would have been appropriate to the theme of the play, to see their “real” world through the eyes of gay lovers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble’s ‘THE FANTASTICKS’ should delight most audience members. However, if they are interested in gaining the message of the Schmidt and Jones musical, they won’t get it from this production.