The Fantasticks, Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt. Directed by Chris Briante. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
This Plum is Too Ripe!!"
Mark Marano, Michael Luongo, Brooke Bauersfield, Joe Lopez; photo: Abe Phelps
I begin by admitting that this is probably my 34th or 35th performance of "The Fantasticks." I saw it first in 1960 at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. I've seen it there and in many other places since. I could probably play any role at any time without a prompt script. For me, as is said at the top of Act Two "This plum is (indeed) too ripe."
That said, let me also admit that I love "The Fantasticks." Any time it is announced in a season I groan about it, then I go and have a lovely time reliving all of the genuine sentiment and evil philosophy that fills its romantic coffers. I revel in the songs, each one a classic (there are no fillers in this show), and I chuckle at the rape (now the abduction) and laugh a little too heartily at Mortimer's death scenes. If I am giving away a secret here, I'm sorry. Still, you need to see this for yourself to truly understand it.
This gentle tale of young love and what happens to people who get what they want is now playing at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York with a sparkling cast, excellent musicians and a classic production by Abe Phelps beautifully illuminated by designer Allen Phelps in the summer venue run by Joan Phelps. Yes, this is the Phelps family theatre and they all know how to run a wonderful, professional theater company.
This production has a wonderful cast, starting with the marvelous young actor/singer Michael Luongo who has already created memorable roles this season at the Barn. His portrayal here of Matt is so charming and lively that by the end of the second act, having discovered for himself the joys of home and honest love, there wasn't a person in the packed house who didn't want to reach out and embrace him. His singing in this show is perfection, strength and tenderness abounding. He maintains a certain twinkle in the eye that permits us to know that his character, Matt, probably knows more than he is telling. He also is a perfect partner for his ladylove, the girl next door.
She is played delightfully by Brooke Bauersfield. This young actress has a pure voice and a devilish grin, a pout right out of the 1920's illustrations by Poindexter and Fischer, and a lovely sense of the dance. She can strike a pose, cross the stage or mount a warchest with ease and grace. She taunts Matt with her presence, doing nothing more than standing there. When she and her one day paramour decide to flee together she has a true sense of the genuine about her. I don't always love the Luisa in these productions but Bauersfield won me over easily.
Their two fathers are played by Mark Marano and Joe Lopez and they are delightful when they plot, delightful when they argue and delightful in their two duets. Though young, they were excellent choices for their roles. Equally charming and delightful to watch was Kaitlin Pearson as The Mute who also stands in as The Wall, serves as general stage assistant and with an almost heavenly and radiant air provides weather for the young lovers. She almost has too much fun as on stage stage-manager. I loved watching her work.
Brooke Bauersfield, Kaitlin Pearson, Michael Luongo; photo: Abe Phelps
Brooke Bauersfield and Ryan Burch; photo: Abe Phelps
The clowns in the show are remarkable this time around. Toby Wherry plays Henry whose incessant spouting of Shakespeare and his inability to remember who wrote Shakespeare's best lines make him one of the finest actors of all time, he would tell you. Wherry does this all with an off-hand sensibility that resonates with any long-term theater professional or theater-goer. The professionals, who principally cannot recall their fans names always call them "Daaarling," and the audience members who've always gone to the theater can no longer remember who they saw last in a role, but they never forget Jerry Orbach as El Gallo forty-five years ago.
John Trainor's Mortimer is unforgettable. The actor known for his death scenes has more than one opportunity to display his art, show his heart, and touch the world with his eternal lack of modesty. Trainor handles all of this beautifully and he can appear and disappear within his own environment like the finest Barnum and Bailey clown corps participant.
Ryan Burch who plays the central dynamo, El Gallo, handles his scenes perfectly. He is a good looking young man, a bit too young for the role but he still carries it off. He has a lovely dark tenor voice but he has not been trained to project it when he sings (there are no body mikes used in this theater). You have to listen very carefully to hear him but what you hear when you do hear him is so worth listening to. With a bit more experience and a good voice teacher there could be a major career in the works here and, like Luongo, a possible future that could sustain and support him. He just needs that vocal power to make it all work.
A lovely production of a true classic, this is a show you don't want to miss. Even if, like me, you've seen it before, this one is right on the money and the return for the price of your ticket is a feeling of euphoria at the end. You can't beat that.
The Fantasticks runs at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY, through August 23. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line to www.theaterbarn.com.