Thursday, January 7, 2010

Theatre Droppings: A Trio of Fantasticks

I hesitated to see the current production of The Fantasticks at Arena Stage. When the show was announced last year, I admit I rolled my eyes a bit. Arena is the grandfather of the regional theatres in these parts, and the idea that they would devote their considerable budget to such a slender piece seemed like a mistake. I have seen The Fantasticks jazzed up before, when Jaston Williams and Joe Sears (the Greater Tuna boys) took on the show, and turned it into a quick-change tour de force right up their alley. They were not only playing the two fathers, they also played the two actors, which of course changed the focus of the piece. In addition to becoming the stars of the show, they also added a chorus!

The thing was not a success. I had visions of another overblown production on Arena's temporary stage at the roomy Lincoln Theatre.

I have a good bit of history with The Fantasticks, and still think I have unfinished business with this play. I'm about to wander off into Me-ville here, perhaps I'll get back to Arena's show eventually...

As the Stagemanager in "Our Town," 1973.
I'm still wearing that hair style.
The Fantasticks should have been the very first musical in which I appeared, but it wasn't. Back in the mists of time, I attended a brand new high school in Atlanta, one which was just getting a theatre department rolling. The drama coach (I called her "Doc," for reasons which escape me now. Wasn't I a scamp? She actually taught English; there were no theatre classes yet) took things slow and predictably. Our first year, "the drama club" (isn't that quaint?) produced a one-act during the school day (Sorry, Wrong Number. We performed it in the cafeteria; I got some laughs as the sergeant in the local precinct). The following year, we moved uptown (to the gym) and produced Our Town as our first full-length offering (wasn't that everybody's first play? I played the Stagemanager; the director gave me a pipe to smoke, and I barfed). The next year, which was to be my senior year, our little theatre was finally opening on campus, and the school's first musical was to be produced: The Fantasticks (again, what are the odds?). I've already whined in these pages that my family moved from Georgia to California around this time, so I missed out on appearing in the show. From that moment, I was determined to rectify that cosmic oversight, and get into a production of The Fantasticks, somehow, somewhere.
As Mortimer, the Man Who Dies, 1975. When I climbed out of a
trunk, wearing long johns and a loincloth, my mother wept with

It was barely two years later when I caught wind of a production being produced at a junior college in L.A.. I was already attending Cal State Northridge at the time, but as the show was being rehearsed during the summer, it did not interfere with my studies; I auditioned to play one of the fathers. I can imagine with some certainty, in hindsight, that my singing audition convinced the director that I should be given a non-singing role, so I ended up playing Mortimer, the Actor whose specialty is death scenes. I had a ball; this part gave me the opportunity to explore physical comedy in a way I had not before.
We had a pretty good cast in that junior college production, but this guy playing El Gallo was a big snore.
In my directorial capacity, I expanded the
Mute's involvement; she freely interacted
with the other characters.

My buddies Matt and Janie did great jobs as
the young lovers.
This is not the best picture of my El Gallo, but John was the real star of  my little production.
I still felt unfinished with the play. Fast forward several more years, to my junior year in college. I was taking an advanced directing class, and for our final, each student was to direct a one-act, to be performed in front of a live, honest to god audience. I bit off more than I could chew by taking The Fantasticks (which is a full-length musical, mind you) and shrinking the thing to an hour (I think we actually ran several minutes over an hour...I probably lost some points for that.  The photos above are from my one-hour production). My teacher in the course was a woman with whom I had a confusing relationship ( I wrote about her a couple of years ago, when she died. Don't be frightened by my nightmare about her male genitalia). Anyway, I had a swell cast who did a bang-up job with this truncated version of the show, with my own work as director being my only disappointment.

Since then, I have probably seen a dozen various productions of The Fantasticks. I believe I have a love/hate relationship with this musical, a deceptively simple show on its surface, but actually a very difficult piece to pull off. So I had every expectation that Arena Stage would blow this play up into an extravaganza. But that did not stop me from being very curious about this production, so I snagged a half-price seat last weekend to take a peek.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I have to be honest: this is the strongest production of The Fantasticks I have ever seen. The expansion of the play to fit the large Lincoln Theatre has been handled with artistry and concern for the show's original tone. The band has doubled in size (from two pieces to four, still not too much for this delicate score), and is being led by George Fulginiti-Shakar, who has done a swell job adapting the music for this larger space. Director Amanda Dehnert has placed the action in an abandoned amusement park, which is a lot more interesting than the blank void the show usually employs. When I read in the reviews that she had incorporated magic, I was doubtful such trickery would enhance the show, but it has.

The show has been getting largely favorable reviews, with which I mostly agree. All the actors are being given their due, though I've read one or two which are disappointed in the leading man, Sebastian La Cause; with those, I heartily disagree. This guy is terrific in the role of El Gallo, and easy on the eyes to boot. After reading his bio, I have discovered that I've seen him several times in the past, most recently in She Loves Me, also at Arena. Frankly, I don't remember him much from that show. Years ago, I caught one of his earliest performances in New York, in a new comedy by my college chum Greg Fletcher. I remember La Cause clearly from that show. I'm not surprised I didn't recognize him as El Gallo, as he has buffed up considerably (the director of The Fantasticks has done us all a favor by allowing him to perform the Abduction Ballet in a T-shirt. Yowza.) He is gifted with the biggest hit in the show, "Try to Remember," and he wisely does not try to compete with the famous renditions of the song by Jerry Orbach and Robert Goulet; he makes it his own, and it's a subtle beaut.

Going back to that abduction sequence: it used to be called The Rape Ballet, but has since changed names for obvious reasons. When I did the show back in the 70s, we were still singing about the Joys of Rape at full voice, but in subsequent productions over the years the authors have been tinkering with this sequence to lessen its, well, inappropriateness. I applaud these changes wholeheartedly, and it looks like they have finally hit upon satisfactory substitutes in the lyrics of what is one of the show's few big numbers.

The other big number in the show, "Round and Round," provided my only real disappointment. This was the only sequence in the show where the addition of the magic seemed forced. The song became a montage of traditional magician's tricks, which prevented it from reaching its giddy, whirling climax.

But I'm picking at knits. I left the theatre very impressed with this production, and completely blown away by the particular performance of Nate Dendy, a young man with whom I am not familiar. I would never believe that a production of The Fantasticks could be stolen by the actor playing the Mute, but this one was. This kid, right out of his MFA program, is clearly going places.