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Saturday, 10 April 2010 18:00

The Fantasticks

Written by Robert Mitchell
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The Repertory Theater of St.  Louis

Through April 11, 2010
Reviewed by Robert A. Mitchell
Finally, the Rep has staged a production of the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical theater staple of The Fantastiks. The show has the distinction of being the longest-running Off-Broadway musical of all time, and for good reason. A musical, stripped of all the usual musical theater bombast of mammoth sets, pyrotechnics and 50-piece orchestras, focusing instead on the small, human problems of feuding families and youth in love, is a welcome throwback to the time when all you needed to tell a good story was a few actors, some words, sunlight, and maybe a piano-harp combo.

The Fantasticks tells the story of Matt and Luisa, two young lovers who picture themselves as star-crossed lovers, mainly due to the fact that their feuding fathers have erected a wall between their houses, to deter any chance of romantic entanglement. What the kids don't know, however, is that their fathers have always plotted to bring them together, and the wall is one trick in a long line of traps set to ensure that they end up in each others arms. To seal their fates, the fathers hire the dashing El Gallo, and his hired troupe of thespians, to stage a kidnapping of Luisa. Her hero, Matt defeats the swashbuckling villains, and they pledge undying love to each other, in the cool and romantic moonlight. Soon, however, all four have to face the broiling realties of daylight, and soon find that promises made in the mist of romance are harder to keep when the realities of life creep in.

Direction by Victoria Bussert shines. She keeps the pace brisk, but always allows the audience (and her actors) to enjoy some very lovely moments of pain, loneliness and regret. I also quite enjoyed the updating of a few of the shows elements "“ particularly the use of modern horticulturing tools for the garderner fathers "“ she lets us know that even though this show is 50 years old, the themes are still relevant to today's audiences.

The orchestra consisted of David Horstman on piano, and Elizabeth Gerberding on harp. They were balanced and understated making for a lovely mix of jazzy sweetness.

Scenic Design by Gary English, and Lighting Design by Peter Sargent were simple and perfect, the use of scaffolding, hanging lanterns and colorful light kept the emphasis on the story, underscoring but never wrestling with the actors. I especially loved the costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis, giving the story an updated look, but staying simple enough not to distract us from the tale we came to see. I never imagined Matt in either a hoodie or a leather jacket, but both were appropriate to his character. She managed the same magic with all the characters.

Relishing in their parts as the young lovers, Cory Michael Smith and Stella Heath have all the impetuousness of youth. When Matt proclaims that Luisa's tender age of 16 makes him "feel young again", you can hear the audience groan at his lack of self-awareness, because he is all of 17 himself! Both lovers have very nice singing voices (although on opening night Ms. Heath's voice sounded a tad bit tired), and the chemistry between them was palpable and at times, beautiful. As the fathers, Scott Shafer and Dan Sharkey's performances were relaxed and natural, and their frequent duets were crowd-pleasers. They reminded us of EveryDad. Brian Sutherland's narrative role of El Gallo was both dashing and mildly regretful. His singing voice was smooth and melodic, and his duet with Matt, "I Can See It", was my favorite of the evening. He was charming and ingratiating, and even though I prefer my El Gallo's to have a bit more of an edge, by the end, he won me over. As the actors, Mortimer and Henry, John Woodson and hometown hero Joneal Joplin stole every scene they had, with impeccable comic clowning, but with a great dollop of humanity thrown in as an aperitif. Rounding out the evening was the beautiful physicality of Sara M. Bruner as the Mute, seamlessly providing solid support for each character, taking on the role the Observer along with the audience, and occasionally becoming part of the set herself. The last image onstage is of her, seeming to acknowledge that the events we have just seen were "fantastic", but at the same time, real and personal to each of us.

The Fantasticks continues at The Repertory Theater of St. Louis thru April 11th. For information, you may call 968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org

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