Smile Politely

Obsolete ideas make The Fantasticks rather… less than

Considering what I observed of Bah Humbug’s production of The Fantasticks, I find it telling that the News-Gazette’s “review” basically boils down to a plot-synopsis. There were some highlights, good voices and great actors involved, despite my disappointment. Therefore, I’d like to narrate my experience, although without the aplomb or suavity of El Gallo, I’m afraid.

Jim Mayer took the stage as the Narrator whose alter ego is “El Gallo” the bandit; I think his accent and scarf were supposed to indicate which one he was at any given time, but I found that a bit confusing.  Still, his baritone easily rose above the music during the theme “Try to Remember”.  His stage presence was as smooth as his satiny shirt and well-suited to sweep the audience away into nostalgia. As each member of the cast was introduced into the song, unfortunately the balance never established itself  — I strained to hear the young lovers and old fathers when they all sang together. There was no sound board mixing to blame, their voices just failed to carry over the music and the strength of Mayer, a problem that asserted itself throughout the show.

For Matt, played by Max Keagle, one of 2014’s two recipients of the Virginia Roesch Scholarship presented by the Celebration Company, the issue seemed to be that he was cast out of range. Keagle’s higher notes, of which there were many, were weak and hardly earned.  The strain became very apparent during the second act’s inspirational number, “I Can See It”, which could have used the benefit of a strong belt, but instead was delivered shakily with a rasp. Later on in the act, however, as he enters into despair, his notes sink into a lower register, showing off the strength and beauty of his true singing voice. I spent two-thirds of the play thinking the poor boy just wasn’t meant for musicals, but it was an honest relief to hear that his singing is indeed as strong as his acting, when it is in the right range.

The lovers played off each other well, each portraying youth and brash absorption in an image of each other, making it clear to the audience that they don’t know enough about each other or life to have developed true affection. Riley Hill-Kartel’s Luisa (pictured left, with Mayer) was silly and giddy, naïve to a fault, as pure and lovely as her symbolic wedding gown. Her high-pitched, waifish voice suited the character, but carried through to her singing, which could barely be heard over the score, let alone when others sang with her. Knowing what I do now about Max, I wonder if this voice is her own, or her director’s choice for the character. Not having seen Ms. Hill-Kartel in any of her previous Centennial High School productions, I can’t be certain.

[Spoiler: Luisa is pictured with El Gallo, who is not the lover to which I repeatedly refer]

The fathers, Jim Dieker and Philip Meadows, were perfect Pantalones decked out in their golf pants and loud accessories. The character actors made their spats hilarious and their fools-being-fooled-at-fooling quite believable. Dieker, especially, was a delight to hear during his solos, and they each provided me with a few needed chuckles.

Dieker, Keagle, Hill-Kartel, and Meadows, left to right

The other comic relief, a pair of hard-luck actors portrayed by Jim Dobbs (pictured left) and Craig Krukewitt (pictured right), were truly a relief, making me glad I was sticking it through to the end. Dobbs’ Henry (aka “The Old Actor”) was a convincing faded Shakespearean in tatters, mixing metaphors and misaligning quotes, lapsing in and out of memories and reality. Mortimer (aka “The Man Who Dies”) was hilarious as a pantomime, who gave me my only laugh-out-loud moments, despite his character’s appearance being troubling. Originally in redface, poorly dressed as a fake “Injun”, it isn’t until the end of the scene that his cockney accent is voiced to assure the audience that the production doesn’t really believe American Indians should be portrayed thus. Still, it is a bit antiquated, and disconcerting for these times, and I’m not certain why the character couldn’t have been updated similarly to the libretto.  

Which brings me to the major problem with this play – it is well and truly out of date. The Fantasticks is the longest-running and most-performed musical in America, having almost continual performances, professional and amateur, since its opening in 1960. That was 55 years ago, and while some songs have been changed along with the times, the plot is somewhat bland, misogynist, and shallow. The children, who already love each other, must be tricked into marriage. The boy, not having sown his wild oats, must go out into the world to indulge in excess and learn that it is harsh and full of cruelty. The girl must stay at home and wait while her love disgraces himself, her fickle nature causes her to be untrue, and her naivety allows her to ignore the ugly truths around her until her heart is broken a second time. I am told it is meant as homage to the Commedia Dell’arte of the Middle Ages, and I can see it, but I’m not sure what it has to say to a modern audience. 

[Nick Lannan and Anika Vogan, right to left, as “The Mutes”]

That being said, the set design and costuming are beautiful, the acting is good, the dancing is graceful, the swordfight is exciting, the clowns are funny. The stagehand characters (“The Mutes”) are efficient, unobtrusive, and “hard workers”. The music won’t get stuck in your head, and the singing you can hear is for the most part lovely and in tune. It’s the only musical in town this weekend, so if that’s your fancy, make your way to Parkland’s Second Stage.

The Fantasticks! plays Wednesday, July 15th through Sunday, July 19th at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinee at 3 pm. The production claims it is suitable for children 10 and up.  You may order your tickets online or call (217) 621-8276. Pricing is as follows for all performances, weekday and weekend (matinee is not dicounted):

Adult: $15

Senior/Student: $12

Youth (12 and under): $10

Reserve front row seating: additional $3/ticket

Photos by Scott Wells

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