Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's show tells the story of two fathers, one with a teenage son, the other with a teenage daughter, who live next door to each other. They pretend they are feuding and build a wall between their two houses in order to keep their children apart yet also hopefully trick them into falling in love. They figure that the children will want what they can't have. But to ensure that their plan works they also hire a man named El Gallo to stage an abduction of the girl in order to make the boy seem a hero when he rescues her. However, not everything goes as planned when happy ever after doesn't turn out quite as expected.
Jones' book and lyrics are full of wit and intricate wordplay. However, while the show doesn't feel dated, it does use a combination of poetry and dialogue as well as slightly caricatured characters and a simple yet somewhat weird plot which can come across as slightly melodramatic, quaint, forced, and just downright corny. Also, the show frequently uses the word "rape" to portray the abduction of the girl. Even though the program notes and pre-show speech mention that the word is being used in its archaic form, it's still a bit shocking to hear the word sung over a dozen times in a song. Fortunately, while act one is fairly straightforward, offering very little conflict, once the harsh reality of the relationships are exposed, the second act becomes full of rich irony as the book and Schmidt's varied, textured music combine to ultimately bewitch you.
Director KatiBelle Collins doesn't add any unnecessary moments of overindulgence, instead letting the simplicity of the story and her talented cast let the plot and characters charm. My only quibble is with the continual odd positioning of the fathers and children with their backs to the audience on the small platform that represents their homes during scenes when they aren't the focus, which is often a slight distraction. I know this show is often staged with most of the cast in view and present throughout, almost as if they are a Greek chorus, but it seems that having them setting with their backs to us doesn't really quite achieve that effect.
As El Gallo, the show's narrator and guide, Rob Stuart delivers a sturdy performance with a deep singing voice and line readings full of charm and a hint of sly mischief that provide not only a rich texture to his songs but also evoke a deep concern for the characters in the play. His direct delivery of the material forms a connection with the audience that helps draw you into the story. Tiana Marks infuses Luisa, the girl, with an appropriate sense of yearning and a lust for adventure, yet she also embodies her with an appropriate sense of melancholy. Her beautiful lilting voice delivers on her many songs. As the young man Matt, Josh Egbert is terrific. His firm understanding of the character, exuberance, and strong voice make Matt a charming person with a winning personality. Egbert and Marks form an incredibly cute and realistic couple.
Darryl Poenisch and Bill Bennett are perfectly endearing as their fathers, instilling their characters with an appropriate level of fatherly concern but also delivering layered performances of these two men who believe they are doing what's best for their children. They form a winning comic duo and have fun with their upbeat songs. Wayne Peck and Timothy Pittman play two actors who get pulled into helping with the abduction. Peck is an absolute ham as the older actor who continually fumbles his lines, though we clearly see through Peck's lovable performance that he truly was once a great actor, while Pittman has a lot of fun as Peck's sidekick who has an affinity for death scenes. As the Mute who helps with props, set changes, and is always present, Samantha-Elise Tennant's sly facial expressions and expressive gestures say plenty without her uttering a single word.
Collins and Cheryl Briley's set design is extremely minimal but it works perfectly, since minimal is what this show requires. Mickey Courtney's costumes have both pops of bright colors and hints of romance that play off the humorous and heartfelt moments in the show. Lighting designer Jeff Jann delivers some beautiful images and music director Lincoln Wright and his three-piece band achieve a lush sound.
The Fantasticks may be quirky, but it is a magical and sweet musical that gradually and perceptively shows that things look very different once the dark romantic moon sets, the harsh bright sun rises, and the reality and shortcomings of love are revealed. Jones and Schmidt's charming jewel of a show also lets us see that the grass isn't always greener on the other side so it's best to appreciate the simple joys of life by learning to treasure what you already have.
The Fantasticks runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through April 23rd, 2017, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.
Producer: Dan Marburger