Review: The City Theatre's The Fantasticks

Reverential and sharp production of the classic musical celebrates its subtleties

The City Theatre Co.'s The Fantasticks (Photo by Andy Berkovsky)

"The Fantasticks … attracts you, settles back a bit limply, wakes you up again and averages out a little less than satisfactory," concluded Walter Kerr in his New York Herald Tribune review after the show's 1960 off-Broadway premiere. "Perhaps," said Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times, "[it] is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures."

Sure, after watching grand and glamorous musicals like My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Gypsy (all on Broadway at the time), Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's minimalistic, melancholic, commedia dell'arte-style parable about two neighboring parents tricking their children into falling in love with one another must have seemed underwhelming to critics. And listening to just piano and harp rather than a typically loaded orchestra probably didn't help.

But audiences picked up on the show's subtle sophistication – the complexity within seemingly stock characters, powerful lyrics nestled within hummable songs, and rhymed verse worked into the prose. And so, The Fantasticks became the longest-running musical since the creation of the art form. Its original staging logged 17,162 performances and the 2006 revival added 4,390 more. The Fantasticks has also become a staple in regional, community, and high school production schedules where, too often, stagings fail to find that subtle sophistication and become rather precious affairs. Worse, too many attempt to make the show grander and more glamorous in order for it to be attractive to younger audiences who might otherwise find it difficult to "try to remember the kind of September/ When life was slow and oh, so mellow."

I speak from experience, having witnessed the mother of all missteps at L.A.'s Reprise Theatre Co. in 2009, where director Jason Alexander (yes, that Jason Alexander) lost the show's carefully honed whimsy under sitcom froth. This is not the case with the City Theatre Co.'s delightful staging under Matt Shead's reverent direction, which embraces the show's romanticism and allows the work to whisper to the audience, as intended, rather than shout at us.

Artistic Director Andy Berkovsky's scenic design is traditionally austere, with the theatre's intimate performance space equipped with just a small stage and curtain, two wood crates, a prop chest, Music Director Karl Logue on piano, and Vincent Pierce on harp. Set-pieces are moved about gracefully by Jane Schwartz who, in the role of the Mute, facilitates the storytelling in silence. As the show's choreographer, she also does a wonderful job having the cast move about gracefully during the show's many musical numbers.

As Luisa and Matt, the starry-eyed lovers, Jacob Bernelle and Mel Elkins are enchanting. They give gorgeous voice to our youthful and innocent desires through "Much More" and "Metaphor," and in Act II they do the same to our dream-squelching disappointments in "This Plum Is Too Ripe." With Elkins being the only soprano in the room, the many intricate harmonies worked into Schmidt's score would certainly benefit from her projecting to the rear of the house rather than the ear of her fellow actors.

Kirk Kelso and Bryan Headrick are charming as the fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy, respectively, and their song "Never Say No" is a highlight in an evening filled with them. But Headrick's tendency to do too much too often comes awfully close to turning his character into caricature and his portrayal to parody.

Greg Allen is a superb El Gallo, the villain hired by the fathers to abduct Luisa to set up Matt's relationship-cementing rescue. El Gallo frequently breaks the fourth wall to offer commentary, philosophy, and foreshadowing: Allen does this with immense sincerity and, when narration turns to song, with a lovely baritone. El Gallo, in turn, hires an ancient ham actor named Henry (played to perfection by veteran thespian Michael Harlan) and his death-scene specialist sidekick, Mortimer (played by a terrific Eli Mendenhall), to assist in the abduction.

Not too grand and not too precious, this production of The Fantasticks is just right.

The Fantasticks

Trinity Street Playhouse, 901 Trinity, 512/470-1100
Through Sept. 18
Running time: 1 hr., 45 mins.

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The City Theatre, The Fantasticks, Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt, Matt Shead, Andy Berkovsky, Jacob Bernelle, Mel Elkins, Kirk Kelso, Bryan Headrick, Greg Allen, Michael Harlan, Eli Mendenhall, Jane Schwartz, Karl Logue, Vincent Pierce

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