(Costa Mesa, CA) May, 2013 – Ever since its debut on May 3, 1960, The Fantasticks has continued to captivate audiences with a special type of timeless magic. After 17,162 performances (closing in January 13, 2002…was then revived in 2006 and is still running.), it is considered the world’s longest-running musical. But all too often, many productions of The Fantasticks have strictly relied only on the performances of the artists and keeping the stage at a minimalist “black box” format, neglecting the incredible opportunities that a creative scenic design can offer to this story of love and loss of innocence. But director Amanda Dehnert possesses the imaginative vision to re-imagine this classic in unpredictable ways. South Coast Repertory’s The Fantasticks serves as a perfect theatrical finale for its 2012/2013 season.
Narrated by the charismatic El Gallo (Perry Odeja), with the help of his mute assistant (Nate Dendy), this musical tale begins with a supposedly simple matchmaking scheme by Hucklebee (Gregory North) and Bellomy (Scott Waara), neighboring fathers of Matt (Anthony Carillo) and Luisa (Addi McDaniel). Both patriarchs attempt to trick their children into falling in love by pretending to feud and staging a fake abduction of Luisa in order for Matt to rescue her, thereby ending this “feud” and merging both families together. And the plan works: three hired traveling actors---Henry (Richard Doyle), Mortimer (Hal Landon Jr.) and El Gallo (Odeja)---kidnap Luisa, and Matt comes in to save the day, creating a love between these two youths that seems impenetrable. However, they soon discover that it was all a trick and both Matt and Luisa break up. But it is through their separation that both youths experience the joys and especially the pains of life, dispelling all preconceived illusions that served as their fragile emotional foundations. They come together once again; but this time, their love is fortified, courtesy of their insightful wisdom and growing maturity.
The key ingredient to this production’s success is director Dehnert’s creative vision of transforming the South Coast Repertory stage into a carnival setting, with a three-piece band playing the musical numbers (Much kudos to Dennis Castellano, Ellie Choate, and Louis Allee). Courtesy of Eugene Lee’s detailed scenic design that was inspired by the Rocky Point Park in Rhode Island, this amusement park setting deftly merges sweet innocence of fantasy with the subtle disturbing elements of reality’s dark side. El Gallo and his mute accomplice also partake in slight-of-hand tricks and more ambitious feats of magic during the show (thanks to the skills of Illusion Designer Jim Steinmeyer). And with the play’s slightly darker nature, one feels it’s a theatrical snapshot of the infamous Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Carnival from Ray Bradbury’s fantasy classic “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” It’s a brilliant interpretation by Dehnert and it will hopefully serve as a paradigm for future productions of this play.
As expected, the performances drive this story and the cast is uniformly flawless, most notably Ojeda’s El Gallo, who exudes a boyish charm and playfulness that is absolutely magnetic. His chemistry with Dendy’s Mute is a true wonder; Dendy’s comedic timing and endearing sensitivity is a combination of the magician Teller and Harpo Marx. Ojeda is the perfect narrator and his musical range is phenomenal and heartbreaking, especially his rendition of “Try to Remember.” But what is fascinating is Ojeda interlaces his confidence with elements of pathos and loss, especially towards the end of the play when he robs the youths of their innocence. From both his performance and his demeanor, it is evident that he has robbed other people of their innocence, and every time he does, a part of him is lost as well. He says this with the line, “I hurt them for that reason; and myself a little bit too,” but it also shows in his pained eyes, especially when he ends the play.
The young lovers are perfectly matched in their interaction and their singing duets. McDaniel, who has played this role both on Broadway and at the Arena Stage, has given Luisa such incredible dimensionality by adding layers of youthful tenderness and feisty immaturity. Carillo’s Matt is hilariously callow and determinedly loyal to Luisa and his father. Both of them harmonize beautifully in all their musical numbers, especially towards the end as their transformation from innocence to wisdom becomes apparent in their vocal range. As the two doting fathers, North and Waara are hilarious in their singing and especially their choreography; these guys can dance! North’s Hucklebee is like an anal-retentive American version of John Cleese and Waara’s worrisome, bow-tied Bellomy is very reminiscent of Joseph Kearns’s Mister Wilson from the 1960s sitcom Dennis the Menace. But the scene-stealing Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. exude old-fashioned class and slapstick hilarity. These SCR Founding Artists are key foundations to this company and their Henry and Mortimer is like watching an inebriated version of Waiting for Godot, with Doyle as the frenetically talkative Pazzo and Landon Jr. as the hapless, forlorn Lucky. They are the crowning touches to The Fantasticks, a poignantly dynamic finale for the South Coast Repertory’s 2012/2013 season.
The Fantastics opens May 17-June 9, 2013
South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Benjamin Horak (main photo only) and Henry DiRocco