Wednesday, May 18, 2016

GLT’s THE FANTASTICKS is a pleasant experience

THE FANTASTICKS, the Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) musical holds the honor of being “the only Off-Broadway show to have won a Tony.”  In addition, the show, which has been playing in New York for 56 years, is also the longest running theatrical production in American theater history.

“During its original run at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, THE FANTASTICKS logged a record breaking 17,162 performances.”  In 2002 a New York revival opened at The Theater Center and continues to run.

The musical even has had a Cleveland connection.  In 1991, native Clevelander and Baldwin Wallace University grad Rex Nockengust, played one of the leading roles (Matt) in the New York production.

The memorable score includes such classics as, “Try to Remember,” “I Can See It,” “They Were You,” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.”  The popularity of the music was obvious during a recent production of the show at Great Lakes Theater when audience members were heard humming along with the on-stage performers.

THE FANTASTICKS tells the story of a young man, Matt, and Luisa, the girl next door, whose fathers have built a wall to keep them apart. The youngsters nevertheless contrive to meet and fall in love. Their fathers, meanwhile, are congratulating themselves, for they have staged a feud in order to achieve, by negation, a marriage between their willfully disobedient children.  Add some comic actors (Henry and Mortimer) and The Mute, an omnipresent character who sets props and plays the wall, and you have the ingredients of a charming musical with a message about life.

The script asks the audience to use their imagination and try to remember such things as falling in love, enjoying a night filled with moonlight and romance, to understand disillusionment and romance, to realize that love can be false, and to gain the insight that through understanding the harshness of the world, individuals can come to understand themselves and each other.

GLT’s production, under the directorship of Victoria Bussert, is a pleasant evening of theater.   I wish that the “Round and Round” segment of the show, which develops Jones and Schmidt’s plea for self-understanding, had been more dramatically presented.  Part of the problem was the set design which placed the scene far from the apron of the stage and high above the audience, so that the tension was not evident.  The various segments need to shock Louisa more so that the intent of Matt’s suffering emotionally shakes her.

Clare Howes Eisentrout was charming as Louisa, the typical teenage girl, in love with love and chasing unrealistic dreams.  She has a lovely singing voice.  Her duets with Pedar Benson Bate (Matt) are nicely presented.  Especially endearing is “They Were You.”  Bate lacked some of the charm needed for Matt, but nicely  developed the basics of the character. 

Matt and Louisa’s fathers, (Hucklebee) Lynn Robert Berg and (Mortimer) Jeffrey C. Hawkins, delightfully sang and acted their roles and were properly klutzy in their dancing.   Their duets, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish” were endearing.

Jeffrey C. Hawkins stole the show as Mortimer.  His extended “dying” scenes were amusing.  Aled Davies was wonderfully pompous as Henry, the over-the-hill Shakespearean actor who couldn’t remember his lines, while over-doing their presentation.

Meredith Lark carried out the duties of the Mute with meaningful purposefulness.

Michael Padgett has a fine singing voice, but lacked the needed charisma and sexual presence to develop the sensual El Gallo.  His duet with Pedar Bate, “”I Can See It,” was well done.

Musical director Matthew Webb and Sara Smith proficiently played the piano score, but the sound system made the instrument sound shrill and pounding.

Capsule judgement:  THE FANTASTICKS is a charming show with a fine score which has a meaningful message.  It is a script which looks easy to direct and stage, but its depth is deceiving.  The Great Lakes Theater’s production should be well received by audiences.

THE FANTASTICKS runs through May 29, 2016 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or