Vienna Theatre Company The FantasticksBy Bob Ashby • Apr 23rd, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Vienna Theatre Company
Vienna Community Center, Vienna, VA
Through May 6th
2:15 with one intermission
$14/$12 Seniors and Students
Reviewed April 20th, 2012
In an era when musical theater seems to be dominated by slick, corporate-sponsored, Disneyfied McMusicals, with Godzilla-size sets and automated stagecraft that dwarf the actors, it is downright refreshing to see a human-scale, handcrafted show that touches all the musical, theatrical, and emotional bases one needs for a sweet evening of entertainment. Such is The Fantasticks, the quintessential off-Broadway musical, in a skillful production by the Vienna Theatre Company.
The show’s young lovers Matt (Josh Goldman) and Luisa (Molly Nuss) live their first act romantic fantasies, culminating in the tender duet, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.” Goldman does callowness well and sings effectively, particularly in his lower register (his second act reprise of a portion of “I Can See It” and the subsequent duet “They Were You” were his strongest vocal efforts). As if June Schreiner weren’t enough, Nuss is further evidence of the wealth of high school-age talent in the area. She is a classic Broadway ingénue type, with a fine soprano instrument, vocal technique, and already well-developed acting chops. She is the standout in the cast, not least because she blends well with others vocally and in her scene work.
The kids’ fathers (Steve Nixon and Kieth Flores) scheme to bring them together by pretending to keep them apart, and they are great fun in their two wry comments on parenthood (“Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish”). They enlist El Gallo (Michael Schlesinger), a kind of life force figure who also functions as a narrator, to stage an abduction of Luisa, so that Matt can appear a hero by rescuing her from “bandits.” Schlesinger has a pleasant voice, competently beginning and ending the show with its signature number, “Try to Remember.” El Gallo needs to be a dash more dashing, with a somewhat darker edge, than Schlesinger provides. His physicality is at times looser and more tentative than ideal in the role.
The abduction scene is a good piece of fight choreography, designed by Steve Lada and Chuck Norris, in which Matt is allowed to believe that he has defeated El Gallo and his henchmen. The henchmen are themselves delightful character roles: Henry, an old and somewhat bewildered Shakespearian actor (Phillip Baedecker), and Mortimer, a specialist in melodramatic death scenes (Jacob Wittenauer). Both acquit themselves well. In a nice concept by director Susan Devine, Mortimer is done as a tattooed punk with a lower class British accent, complete with Mohawk hairdo.
The final character in the play is The Mute (Donna Naybor), here conceived as a homeless woman who observes the action and occasionally hands props to the other actors. Typically a mime role, The Mute is used in a far less prominent fashion than in many productions. For example, The Mute often enacts the wall that the two fathers erect to make their children believe they are being kept apart. Here, that function is assigned to part of the set. The muted nature of this role in the Vienna production is a loss. As the saying goes, a mime is a terrible thing to waste.
While Dave Winfield’s open wood framework set is intentionally simple, Chris Hardy’s lighting design is relatively complex, used effectively to highlight bits of the action (e.g., a rapid brightening at the end of the Matt/Luisa duet “Metaphor”). The set and lighting come together nicely in a red-lighted scene behind a scrim showing Henry and Mortimer brutalizing Matt as El Gallo and Luisa sing “Round and Round.” This not a prop-heavy show; there is a nice moment, though, when The Mute holds a skeletal umbrella over Matt and Luisa during “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.” The production uses a projection instead of a cardboard cutout (referred to in the script) for the moon. This unfortunately costs El Gallo the chance to flip over the cutout to reveal the sun at the outset of Act 2, detracting from his line “until we’ve all been burned a bit, and burnished by…the sun.”
The two-piece band — keyboard and harp — had a shaky beginning in the overture, but recovered well as the show went on. The prominence of the harp in the scoring is a unique and quite lovely feature of the musical writing for the show. Why a small-scale musical, not written for amplification and played in a modest-size space, needs miking for the singers at all is an unhappy mystery, compounded in the Vienna production by numerous operational glitches. Not only were there chronic problems of distortion and feedback, but the audience right speaker did not work during the first act. Hopefully these problems can be fixed for future performances.
The Fantasticks opened in 1960, beginning a record 42-year first run. There are occasional signs of datedness in the script: it is less likely now than 50+ years ago that a girl would need to make a point of saying that she wanted much more in her life than keeping house. In “It Depends on What You Pay,” the word “rape” (used in the original script as a literary synonym for “abduction” rather than to mean a sexual assault) is dropped in favor of “raid,” “pay,” and “abduction.” This makes for a degree of awkwardness in the lyrics, but can be justified as avoiding potential discomfort for audiences.
In a way reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s stylistically very different Candide, which opened a few years earlier, The Fantasticks has at its heart a conservative message. Two young people in love set out on separate adventurous journeys, encountering mostly difficulty and pain. In the end, bruised but wiser, they learn that peace and happiness come from quiet domestic devotion. Matt and Luisa’s simple and direct acceptance of this principle in “They Were You” is a close thematic parallel to the gloriously lush duet/chorus “Make Our Garden Grow” that concludes the Bernstein work. That both pieces continue to be able to touch us emotionally may mean, perhaps, that the 1950s dream of marriage and home as the only haven in a heartless world is not so far in the past as it sometimes seems to be.
I first saw The Fantasticks when I was 16, Luisa’s age in the play. During the passing years, I’ve seen several productions and always thought I’d like to stage the show. It turned 50 years old last year and is known for its simplicity. What I’ve discovered is that the story is simple but the storytelling is complex.
When given the opportunity to direct The Fantasticks, I thought about what I would like to see if I was seeing it for the first time or the fourth time or the tenth time. I decided that I wanted to see The Fantasticks I experienced at age 16 so I could still be surprised but I wanted to see it today. If Jones and Schmidt wrote it today, what would the show look like? So I’ve reset it in a big city and updated it while making every attempt to retain the original style. If you’re seeing The Fantasticks for the first time, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did so many years ago. If you’re seeing again, I hope you enjoy finding the references to the original staging as well as the fresh look at what has become a classic.
Photos provided by the Vienna Theatre Company
- El Gallo, Narrator: Michael Schlesinger
- Luisa, The Girl: Molly Nuss
- Matt, The Boy: Josh Goldman
- Hucklebee, The Boy’s Father: Steve Nixon
- Bellomy, The Girl’s Father: Kieth Flores
- Henry, An Actor: Philip Baedecker
- Mortimer, The Man Who Dies: Jacob Wittenauer
- The Mute: Donna Naybor
- Director: Susan Devine
- Music Director: Paul Nasto
- Assistant Music Director: Francine Krasowska
- Conductor: Francine Krasowska
- Rehearsal Pianist: Francine Krasowska
- Choreographer: Laura Fargotstein
- Producer: Doodie Brethwaite
- Executive Producer: Adrian Steel
- Stage Manager: Joan Lada
- Assistant Stage Manager: Michele Bell
- Set Designer and Construction Chief: Dave Winfield
- Set Construction Crew: Robert Bell, Doodie Brethwaite, Paul Nasto, Ken Nuss, Jessie Roberts,
- Jon Roberts, Adrian Steel, Jocelyn Steiner, John Vasko, Eric Storck, Ken Perkowski
- Lighting Designer: Chris Hardy
- Stage Combat Choreographers: Steve Lada, Chuck Norris
- Sound Designer: Jon Roberts
- Set Dresser/Props Master: Mike Smith
- Costumer and Wardrobe Crew: Anne Marie Nasto, Donna Naybor, Jeannie Thrall
- Decorative Painter/Scenic Artist: Jocelyn Steiner
- Piano: Francine Krasowska
- Harpist: Mark Martin
Disclaimer: Vienna Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. VTC also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio.net web site, which did not influence this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7912.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.