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CHARMING AND SWEET: ‘The Fantasticks’ evokes renewed appreciation of life’s magical moments

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Gwenyfar reviews the longest-running musical in theatre history.

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The world’s longest running musical, “The Fantasticks,” opened this week in  the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre at Thalian Hall. Produced as part of Thalian’s Cube Theatre Project, the production is beautiful and captures the magic of the original off-Broadway show which ran for 42 years. Though Tom Jones (who wrote the lyrics and book) and Harvey Schmidt (who penned the score) wrote  other shows, nothing ever achieved success like “The Fantasticks.”

Tony Rivenbark and Eddie Waters as the clowns in "The Fantasticks," opening Thursday. Courtesy photo.

Tony Rivenbark and Eddie Waters as the clowns in “The Fantasticks,” opening Thursday. Courtesy photo.

This production, directed by Shane Fernando, utilizes the original scoring of piano, played by music director Chiaki Ito, with harp by Christina Brier. It’s a wonderful choice and literally sets the tone for the evening. It puts the focus on the work both musically and thematically, highlighting its witty lyrics and stellar writing. The show is narrated by Khawon Porter, who portrays a bandit of questionable motivations as El Gallo. Porter’s velvety deep voice is captivating, and from the first time he winks at the audience, he has them in the palm of his hand.

He introduces the audience to a girl, Luisa (Courtney Poland), and the boy next door, Matt (Greg Beddingfield). They are tragically separated by a wall built by their respective fathers (Jonathan Wallin and Michael Lauricella). The wall in this case is played by The Mute (Jordan Spillers), with nods to clowns, comedia and certain rude mechanicals.

The tragically separated young lovers don’t realize they are victims of a fiendish plot by their fathers, who scheme in hops of their marriage. The patriarchs rationalize a little reverse psychology can go a long way with parenting, which they illustrate with zest in the song and dance number “Never Say No”:

“Children, I guess/must get their own way/the minute that you say no….My son was once afraid to swim/the water made him wince/Until I told him not to swim/been swimmin’ ever since.”

Just to make sure their kids cross the finish line, they decide to hire El Gallo the bandit and his touring players to produce an abduction of Luisa, so Matt can rescue her and everyone will live happily ever after. The players, Henry (Tony Rivenbark) and Mortimer (Eddie Waters), have seen better days. Henry is an aged former star (in his own mind at least). Rivenbark steals the show in his portrayal. From his grasp of the Bard (mostly by the throat) to his lengthy attempt to kneel for Romeo to his relationship with stairs, Rivenbark’s attention to detail makes the grand gestures grander and the broad strokes funnier.

His sidekick, Mortimer, is not to be out done—and it would take a lot of energy to keep up with Rivenbark in this role. Yet, Eddie Waters meets that challenge head on with a grin to melt hearts. Every time he opens his mouth the audience laughs. Together, the two actors provide a constant stream of sight gags, puns and fourth-wall smashing, keeping the audience in stitches.

Henry and Mortimer aside, the young lovers have to figure out their happily ever after, and not only who they are but what they could really offer each other. Both begin as farcical parody characters who grow into themselves. Luisa, especially, is pretty ridiculous with some of the things she has to do and say, as a representative of teenaged girls in love with the idea of being in love. Poland convinces the audience utterly of her childish fantasies. Frankly, with that beautiful voice, it wouldn’t matter if she were singing a zip-code directory.  Thankfully, she has the performance to back up the pretty voice to make her sympathetic to the audience rather than annoying, which is what that role played poorly quickly becomes.

Beddingfield’s Matt is understandably infatuated with the idea of Luisa, but clearly has absolutely no idea how to do anything. He captures all the bravado and certainty of young testosterone on the rise, and like Poland, manages to keep Matt likable rather than cause the audience to want to take a well-deserved mallet to his head. Both sell their incredibly gushy, mushy, absurd love song “Metaphor” with such sincerity it becomes sweet and delightful and inspires feelings of nostalgia.

Production designer Gary Ralph Smith has transformed the space into a circus tent of delights. Vivid carnival colors fill the space, ropes crisscross the ceiling, and string lights give rise to old-school tent lighting. The old wooden box at the center still provides the action and additional props. For all other necessities, the intentional sense of homemade and simple abound from a cardboard moon hung on one of the poles to crepe-paper steamers. Visually, it comes together perfectly, with the crowning moment of The Mute scattering glitter over the tableau of Luisa and Matt. So sweet, so beautiful.

Perhaps that is the appeal of the show: its magic. It isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a vast orchestra with sets flying in and out or expensive production values. It’s about that magic we create in our own lives with our loved ones: our parents, our children, our lovers. The show gives rise to a place where a rhinestone necklace and a single tear can each become more valuable than gold because of what they mean.

Go see this lovely production; it will bring laughter, tears and a renewed appreciation for the magical moments of life we create with each other.

The Fantasticks
May 19-29, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $32
Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.

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