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ONCE UPON a time there was a genre known as musical comedy--quick-paced, sly and witty, warm, didactic but shallow. The songs were pleasant and melodious, you could count on a few up-tunes and some spangled bimbos, never in any more dissonant a musical mode than mixolydian. The script--"book" it was called by those in the know--grappled with Important Issues, like racial prejudice (Finnian's Rainbow) other cultures (The King and I), utopia found and lost (Camelot) and the Nazi rise to power (Cabaret). It was good, workmanlike entertainment, done with zeal and finesse, an enjoyable evening with drinks before and dessert after. The Kirkland House production of The Fantasticks is cast in this mold and wavers tantalizingly close to success by its standards.
Directors Harry Dorfman and Patty Woo are unfailingly faithful to Tom Jones's 1959 script, and that is the production's greatest weakness. The unabashed sappiness of the romance between Matt (Rick Farrar) and Luisa (Cathy Weary) demands an audience steeped in bad musicals to be funny. Out of historical context, the parody is too broad to be effective. Even the attempts at self-parody in the second act are unsubtle, and we keep wishing someone on stage will pull the plug, drain the syrup, and dazzle us with fast comebacks and some naked sarcasm.
There is little dazzle, although some of the singing and acting is very good, even excellent. Farrar is funny as the gooey 20-year-old who believes he is rebelling against his father by falling in love with the girl next door, and his voice is strong enough to carry off his musical numbers. Weary's sweet, swooning Luisa is equally effective, and her voice is the best of the cast. Their duets are some of the finest numbers in the show--rapid musical banter honed sharp by careful rehearsal.
Randy Clark, as Luisa's father Bellomy, and Stu Cleland, as Matt's father Hucklebee, are satisfactory, if uninspired. They are cramped by a script that demands they do little else but cultivate their gardens, whine about the natcher'l contrariness of young'uns and congratulate each other for manipulating their children into falling in love. We would like to laugh at these semi-competent parents, clad entirely in suburban plaids, but there is no one to whom they can play the foils, and the satire falls flat. Still, they do a fine job with their duets, singing and dancing with energy and precision.
The weakest link in Fantasticks is LeoPierre Roy, who plays El Gallo. Roy is a veteran of many Harvard theatricals, and his performance is not a casualty of incompetence, but miscasting. El Gallo is the most difficult role in the show. He must sing the beautiful opening ballad "Try to Remember," introduce the characters, narrate the action, abduct Luisa and allow himself to be beaten by Matt, and philosophize on the Meaning of It All. Roy is a good actor, but he is all wrong for the part, El Gallo is supposed to be dark, handsome, suave, sophisticated and on-key; Roy has a paunch his cummerbund can't hide, his hair is thin, his voice is weak, and the script conspires to make his philosophical pronouncements come off as childish prattle.
Bonnie Zimering as the Mute is a refreshing fountain of understatement. Her careful, graceful mime and dour expression accented by simple, effective make-up, transforms her role from a piece of furniture and dispenser of props into a wise and mournful critic of what goes on around her. She is sophisticated without being aloof, sympathetic but not saccharine.
Spence Taylor and Herb Larsen provide comic relief to comic relief in the Shakespearean characters of Henry, an aging, vain, forgettable actor and his companion Mortimer, whose specialty is spectacularly acrobatic feigned death. They are hilarious in their early scenes, and successfully make the transformation to guileful roughnecks in the second act.
With only piano, harp and bass at his disposal, musical director and piantist Dan Ullman achieves a surprising spectrum of moods with the score. Except for the touching ballad "Try to Remember," the songs are musically undistinguished. Still, the musical numbers are the strong points of the show. Matt and Luisa's closing duet, staged with admirable restraint, nearly redeems the dialogue that precedes it--and it would completely if Schmidt and Jones didn't feel obligated to insert El Gallo at the end with another substanceless speech.
Dave Covall's simple set is good, although it might work better if the perimeter of the stage was more sharply defined. The stage runs the entire length of the Kirkland JCR, and because the technical devise of having characters who are not immediately involved in the action freeze at the rear or sides of the current scene is used throughout, the stage seems to blend into the audience and the musicians, and it is difficult to maintain focus on the action. Eric Cornwell's and Acha Lord's subdued lighting is effective, although the soft edges and lack of highlights tend to compound the focus problem.
Costumes are appropriately early '60s-ish. The choreography, done by Patty Woo, lacks flair in the opening scene, but picks up for the musical numbers, which are staged with wit and aplomb, and the sprawling deaths of Roy and Larsen are limericks, if not poetry, in motion.
The Fantasticks is a depressingly conservative musical comedy. More than anything else, Jones is telling young people to stay at home, that arguing with your parents can only lead to hurt, that the world is an ugly place, that it isn't worth exploring other places and ideas because the boy and girl next door are the best there is. The main action of the first act--the attempted rape of Luisa that Huckelbee and Bellomy stage so that Matt can defeat her abductors in a moment of glory--isn't funny anymore. Rape is frighteningly real these days, and when El Gallo and the two fathers sing "It Depends on What You Pay," haggling over how elaborate an abduction El Gallo is to produce, we aren't tittilated and amused, but offended.
The Kirkland House production of The Fantasticks is a good college try at musical comedy. If you like professional productions of the show, which continues to run off-Broadway, you will not be disappointed with the faithful Kirkland version. But if your expectations for theater are higher than what Jones and Schmidt set out to do, you would be wise to spend the evening with friends, reading Ibsen aloud.
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