Fantasticks rises above problems with excellent performances
by Spinning Tree Theatre
There are two old showbiz sayings, Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst noted at the beginning of Sunday afternoon's performance of "The Fantasticks" at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center. One is "Break a leg;" the other, "The show must go on." They proceeded to note wryly that, over the past week, they had managed to accomplish both.
Readers of arts news will most likely have heard that the star of this production, Vigthor Zophoniasson, tore his Achilles tendon on the opening night, forcing them to abort the evening's performance and the following matinee. Over the previous week, however, the show has been retooled, and thus do we find our El Gallo back in the saddle, albeit with aid of crutch and wheelchair. But the show must go on, and does, with a commendable spirit that brings this production above the common.
The story is, of course, a classic one: Based on Edmund Rostand's playful take on "Romeo & Juliet", young neighbors Luisa and Matt (Sarah Anne Goeke and Seth Jones, respectively) connive to spend time together, lingering over the wall that separates them, never suspecting that the wall - and indeed the feud between their parents (Tom Lancaster and Julie Shaw as Luisa's father and Matt's mother) - is a prop, a connivance on the part of the parents to bring the two young ones together through the power of forbidden love. The plan has drawn fruit: the two are desperately in love with each other, but how to end the feud? Enter El Gallo, bandit for hire, who conspires with the parents to attempt an abduction of the girl, complete with Indians, bandits, and optional musical accompaniment. With the help of itinerant Shakespearean Henry (Kip Niven) and his compatriot Mortimer (Martin Buchanan), the abduction is staged. Matt comes flying to the rescue, the "bandits" are foiled, Luisa rescued, the feud ended, joy bells ring, happy ending and curtain.
Ah - but!
It's never quite so simple as that, and as we enter the second act, the story quickly begins to turn. Somehow the reality isn't quite as nice as the fantasy. Tempers fray, the mood turns sour. And when an itemized bill for the "abduction" appears, all hell breaks loose. This second half is full of worldly wisdom and lessons hard won. If the first act is a song of innocence, the second is a song of experience. Tom Jones' story and Harvey Schmidt's lyrics have stood the test of time for over fifty years. Cynical but romantic, hopeful but worldly wise. Sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, and very often downright hilarious. This play is a workhorse, and not without reason.
With its staging deliberately minimal, "The Fantasticks" is a good fit for the Off-Center venue. It makes for an unusually intimate space, one which suits the mood of the play quite nicely. It gives the performers enough room to move and interact to a limited degree with the audience, and the open nature of the theatre does an excellent job of bringing the audience into the story in a particularly intimate way.
Of course, all of this would be for nothing without the performances themselves, and thus we come to the elephant in the room: an El Gallo in a wheelchair? Limping about on crutches? Can, in fact, it possibly work? Well, I am pleased to report that, for the most part, yes. It does. They have taken the unfortunate circumstance and, in the true spirit of the theatre, made it work. There are bits of comedic business that have been added; lines once delivered straight take on new comedic import. Zophoniasson is still every inch El Gallo, and if his injuries have affected his mobility, they have done nothing to impact his voice, which is tremendous. Also of note is Ms Goeke, an absolutely stunning soprano. We see that she graduated from UMKC in 2010 with a degree in vocal performance, and it absolutely shows. Shaw & Lancaster play their parts with the comfortable ease of seasoned performers; and as for Niven and Buchanan... well, for this reviewer, Henry & Mortimer can make or break the show. Happily, these two turn in excellent performances, delightfully comic.
Technically the show is quite good. The musical accompaniment is just visible stage rear, making for the second performance in a row we've seen with the musicians visible. Unusual to say the least, but not at all unwelcome. Lighting was generally good; the sound quite adequate, though there were some issues with mike popping during some of the more vigorous scenes.
So. We have a classic show with simple performances in an intimate space. And no, it is not as polished as the Robert Goulet touring version this reviewer was privileged to see twenty-odd years ago. Yes, there are minor glitches here and there. And yes, seeing El Gallo confined to a wheelchair for the majority of the performance does take a bit of the impact. But the performances on the stage more than make up for these issues. To anyone of two minds on this, please take my heartiest recommendation: when all is said and done, it's a question of the skill of the artists before you, and the Spinning Tree Theatre is very fortunate to have some very talented artists indeed. That this production is continuing at all is a testament to the spirit of the show and its cast and crew. See it for the songs expertly sung. See it for the laughs, old and new. See it because you won't see a production quite like this again. Or just see it because it is Fantastick.