The Fantasticks, book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt. Directed and choreographed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"And I want much more of. . . ."
Derrick Jaques, Stephanie Granade, Gabe Belyeu, Matt McMath, Patrick Heffernan in a staged press photo provided by the theater.
Here’s a curiosity. After 51 years of watching productions of "The Fantasticks" I found in the new production at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York something new, something I had never seen before. Fifty-one years of productions starting with the Greenwich Village original, a television edition and a film, at least a dozen regional productions, one on a cruise ship, one in London and one in Hamburg, Germany not to mention three separate recorded versions, something new. I always thought, and still do think, that the precious sounds of the monologues in this show are overwritten, mortally literary. Not so the lyrics; not so the music. They are timeless and on target.
The story is as old as old can be: two fathers separate their children by building a wall. This makes each of them more attractive to the other. In order to spur on the budding romance the fathers arrange an abduction and rescue scenario which succeeds. Happy ending. Then in the second act it all unravels as reality settles in. Being an incurable romantic I’ve always liked the first act better while acknowledging that the second act has punch and some wonderful songs. Disaffection merged with good music works in opera but not in a musical comedy. Or so I always thought. Until John Saunders came along and shook that up a bit.
Act Two of "The Fantasticks" is more poignant, more relevant and more enticing suddenly than anything the first act could present. In Saunders staging the first vision of the happy ending left behind in Act One is not touching at all. It is pathetic in its exaggerated romanticism. Even before the musical number "This Plum Is Too Ripe" begins you are already on a fast slide into torment. As the dark-side of optimism emerges and the reality of the larger world intrudes on the sweet sentiments of "Happy Ending" an edginess creeps onto the circular stage of this theater in the round and almost urgently persuades you to flee. But stay. Romance survives reality and comes back stronger and more unbeatable than ever.
Saunders has stalwart companions on the stage in this visionary production. Andrew McMath, whose bio I couldn’t find in the program, is simply brilliant at Matt, the Boy. His dark good looks, his pitch-perfect voice with its interpretive skills, his youthful slenderness all work to making his character romantic in a classic style. Dressed all in white he is the personification of every young girl’s dream of a Prince Charming. As his neighbor, The Girl, Luisa, Stephanie Granade sings like a musical dream, looks lovely in her white dress and petticoats and dances with such grace you never want her to stop whirling. She managed the youthful viewpoint of this child of 16 with a naturalness that never left her, even in the horrors of her visions in Act Two. I am hoping that she and McMath are partnered again later in the season. It will be intriguing to see if their theatrical magic can survive this show.
Their fathers are played with true fun and disdain by Derrick Jaques and Gabe Belyeu. Their two duets were well played and their garden scene at the top of the second half of the show was superb. David Beditz as The Old Actor, Henry handles physical and verbal comedy with equal accomplishment while his buddy, The Man Who Dies, Mortimer, is given equal strength and conviction by local actor Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon. Dressed in red flannel underwear Schane-Lydon uses the costume to great effect.
As the mutes, more active than in most other productions, Lea Nardi and Scott Caron do fine work. The same can be said for Patrick Heffernan as El Gallo. Not the romantically sinister performance of Jerry Orbach, nor the darkly sinister performance of Alan Cumming, this pirate of the human soul has a romantic gentleness about him that is reminiscent of the angel of death in "Death Takes a Holiday." You want his bill paid before the show ends. You understand his need for the token he demands from Luisa. You sympathize with his need to take Matt down a large, long peg. He is more than his character; he is the God-force in these peoples lives. It’s a majestic achievement, this performance.
Jimm Halliday’s costumes are delectable and character-defining as always. Andrew Gmoser’s lighting captures the spirit of each moment just right. Kevin Gleason’s excellent set consists of six mis-matched boxes and that’s all you need for this vision of the show. Music Director Josh D. Smith at the onstage piano and harpist Karlinda Caldicott back the show with musical magic, the harp a nearly mesmerizing instrument here as designed by Harvey Schmidt who wrote for that instrument in the original presentation.
But I do believe that the balance of this production’s image-shattering reality comes through the vision of its director, John Saunders. He has made "The Fantasticks" worth seeing again, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
The Fantasticks runs through June 2 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre located at 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, New York. For information and tickets contact the box office at 518-392-9292 or at their website, www.machaydntheatre.org.