Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
“Try to remember…and if you remember, then follow.” This sort of says it for the University of Michigan Flint Theatre’s current production of The Fantasticks, the longest running off-Broadway musical in history (57 years). This impressive tale, with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, did finally close last May, so this version might now be considered a revival.
Director Stephanie Dean has retained the intimate atmosphere of the original by placing both the play and the seating on the UM stage. It works quite well and brings the audience directly into the action on more than one occasion.
As the troupe arrives onstage, they begin unloading prop boxes from the back of a gypsy-style wagon and erect a wire on which to mount the stage curtain. There is no fourth wall here; not yet.
A love story at its core, this tale involves two fathers who pretend to feud. They’re sure their children will do what they forbid which is to fall in love and marry each other. So, they build a wall between their property, and the trick works – for a while.
Jason Briggs opened the action with a strong and dulcet vocal rendition of “Try to Remember” in the role of El Gallo, a combination narrator, swashbuckler, and villain. Dressed as what appears to be a matador, he still manages to do a fine job of shepherding the action.
Of course the lovers are paramount with Cynthia Risch as Luisa on one side of the “wall” and Gage Webster as Matt on the other. The near improvisational style of this show leaves much to the audience’s imagination as we are treated to the lovely duet, “Metaphor”.
Comedy lurks around every corner though as we are made privy to the parental plan with Hucklebee (Taylor Boes) and Bellomy (Joshua Comea) singing “Never Say No”. Not content with subtlety, these two decide to take their plan a few steps further by hiring a troupe of actors to pretend to kidnap Luisa and allow Matt to save her.
El Gallo steps in and hires a couple of aging actors to assist in the ruse. First to emerge from the prop trunk is Mortimer, whose specialty is dying, played with wildly dramatic deportment by Ava Pietras. Next out of the box is Henry, an aged and arthritic grouch played believably in a near total head and facemask by Lindsey Briggs. Henry’s forte is Shakespeare which he spouts randomly and out of context. These two were a highlight and a lot of fun to watch.
Interestingly, Dean has cast three traditionally male roles with females in this production. Matt’s father is also handled very nicely by Boes with help from the cleverly portly costume she wears.
All goes as planned and Act One ends on a positive note with everyone happy and poised for lifelong happiness. El Gallo warns us that it won’t last, and he’s correct.
As Act Two opens we find discord developing: the Mute (Dahlia Kassel) hands Luisa a plum. “This Plum is Too Ripe” is a caustic number that reveals the unrest developing in the ranks.
Of course, it all turns out just fine but not before some interesting comments are tunefully made. We loved “Plant a Radish” sung by the parents comparing kids to plants, and also the pensive and disconcerting “Beyond that Road”.
We found Act Two to be a little slow at Friday’s opening. It seemed to lag a bit and was not as crisp as Act One. Still, this is a classic and now vintage piece that is truly well worth seeing. The cozy audience confines offering that close proximity to the actors makes this one well worth the trip downtown.
The Fantasticks continues at the University of Michigan-Flint January 27, February 2 & 3 at 7:30 pm and January 28 & February 4 at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available at the Whiting Ticket Center – 810-237-7333, online at tickets.thewhiting.com, and at the Flint Farmers’ Market (Tues., Thurs., Sat.).