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Pandemonium Theatrical Productions The Fantasticks

By • May 1st, 2014 • Category: Reviews
The Fantasticks
Pandemonium Theatrical Productions: (Web)
W-3 Theatre, Lorton, VA
Through June 1st
2:10 with intermission
$25/$20 Senior, Student, Military
Reviewed April 26th, 2014

Though it was not the first, Tom Jones’ and Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks was the prototypical, and certainly the most frequently performed, off-Broadway musical. Among other things, the original 1960 production was the breakthrough role for Broadway and television great Jerry Orbach. With a small cast, a single accompanist, and modest technical requirements, the innovative show demonstrated that limited resources, creatively deployed, could produce theatrically and emotionally rewarding work.

Pandemonium Theatrical Productions, using a performing space in Lorton’s Workhouse Arts Center, provides a generally satisfying rendition of this familiar show. The story centers around young lovers Matt (Jonathan Litalien) and Luisa (Mary Anne Furey), as they are manipulated by their fathers (Jason Krage and John Hollinger, respectively), and the narrator/bandit El Gallo (Michael Sharp).

Luisa begins as a self-dramatizing teenage princess, and in her early songs (“Much More” and “Metaphor”) director Jeffrey Davis gives Furey license to take the drama a bit far. By the time she and Litalien get to the innocently sensual “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and, even more so, the tender “They Were You” (staged simply with the actors sitting on the stage floor in each other’s arms), their characters have grown and their portrayals have become more controlled. Both sing beautifully, especially in the quieter portions of their numbers, and the feelings conveyed, especially in “They Were You,” are genuinely touching. (The latter number is a close thematic and emotional cousin of the superb finale of Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow.”)

Their fathers, in a successful attempt to ensure that Matt and Luisa fall in love, pretend to feud and construct a Pyramus and Thisbe-style wall between their back yards. Passionate gardeners both, albeit with contrasting horticultural philosophies, they boast of their manipulative prowess over their offspring in “Never Say No” and ruefully reflect on the unpredictability of kids in “Plant a Radish.” Hollinger and Krage both sing effectively, while projecting genially rustic, but canny, characters. Like Litalien and Furey, Hollinger and Krage have good stage chemistry together.

El Gallo is a sort of life force character, who must be dashing and charismatic while administering harsh life lessons to Matt and Luisa in order to move them to a more mature understanding of their love. Sharp’s performance was short on dash, sometimes seeming more stolid than charismatic, and the life force felt wan at times. Sharp had inconsistent success in trying to remember the lyrics of “Try to Remember,” the show’s famous opening number. Indeed, he was noticeably fighting for lines at several points throughout the evening. Probably his strongest moment was “I Can See It,” his stirring second act duet with Matt.

The Fantasticks includes two amusing small character roles, Henry and Mortimer, a forgetful old actor and a make-believe Indian who does (or rather overdoes) death scenes. Davis did not give Mortimer (Casey Fero) death scenes quite as elaborate as in many productions, and Fero’s vigorous portrayal belied the wear and tear that would likely result from 40+ years of dying. I find myself in strong disagreement with the director’s choice to cast a younger actor (Amy Wolf) to play Henry. Wolf’s big, brassy portrayal completely missed the poignance of the elderly trouper, who mixes up his Shakespeare lines but never surrenders, only wishing to be seen under light. The contrast between Henry’s age and frailty and the youthful innocence of Matt and Luisa is an important overtone in the show, and it’s a pity to lose that nuance. Since a woman is playing the part, the old actor is identified in the program as “Henrietta,” which does not affect the other characters, who go right on calling her “Henry.”

On the other hand, Davis and choreographer Mary Payne Omohundro built up the role of The Mute (Kathleen McCormack) considerably compared to many productions, with outstanding success. McCormack’s mute is not a relatively passive mime, but a combination stage manager, silent Greek chorus, and dance soloist, who interacts frequently and charmingly with the other characters. Her reactions to the goings-on around her are always on point, and she is a disciplined enough performer to avoid stealing scenes that were hers for the taking.

In addition to McCormack’s fine work, the movement in the production is strong throughout, especially in ensemble numbers like “This Plum is Too Ripe” and “Round and Round.” Davis also deserves credit for keeping the original version of “It Depends on What You Pay” rather than succumbing to use of the more politically correct substitute that has been employed in some productions in recent years.

Musical director/pianist Brandon Heishman provides excellent and, as far as I could tell, note-perfect accompaniment. To his and the actors’ credit, every song in the show was sung at least adequately and often highly effectively. The program did not list credits for most of the technical categories. This is an active props show, however, and whoever assembled the foam swords, garden supplies, fruit, a small jewel box (a particularly nice touch, into which El Gallo deposits Luisa’s tear), and other items did his or her job well.

Like Candide, which preceded it by four years, The Fantasticks is in a sense a socially conservative story. In both shows, two young people have unrealistic ideals, set out to find adventure, are chastened by reality, and return content to live conventional, if comfortable and comforting, lives. Matt and Luisa are children of the 50s, not of the rebellious and rule-breaking 60s, more likely to find fulfillment behind a white picket fence than on a picket line. (Go see a production of Hair if you want the update.) It’s interesting to speculate about whether this reassuring theme has contributed to the continuing popularity of the show, through all the turmoil and wrenching changes of the last 54 years.

Cast

  • The Narrator (El Gallo): Michael Sharp
  • The Boy (Matt): Jonathan Litalien
  • The Girl (Luisa): Mary Ann Furey
  • The Boy’s Father (Hucklebee): Jason Krage
  • The Girl’s Father (Bellomy): John Hollinger
  • The Mute: Kathleen McCormack
  • The Old Actor (Henrietta): Amy Wolf
  • The Man Who Dies (Mortimer): Casey Fero
  • Pianist: Brandon Heishman

Creative

  • Director: Jeffrey Davis
  • Costumes/Choreography: Mary Payne Omohundro
  • Musical Direction: Brandon Heishman
  • Produced by: Mary Payne Omohundro and Jeffrey Davis

Disclaimer: Pandemonium Theatrical Productions provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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