Love—it’s the quintessential subject matter that drives a great deal of art in our world. The longest running musical in off-Broadway history tackles the topic in its full romanticism and allure in “The Fantasticks.” The show ran for 42 years across a staggering 17,162 performances.
With music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, loosely, the tale is based on Edmond Rostand’s play “The Romancers (Les Romanesques).” The story follows Luisa and Matt, two youngsters tricked to falling in love from their respective fathers, who hash out a familial feud that drive the two lovebirds into each other’s arms. However, when the kids learn of the deception their patriarchs played, they separate and embark on their journeys into the world. Yet, destiny brings them together again.
Shane Fernando—executive director of the Wilson Center, Cape Fear Community College’s Fine Arts and Humanities Center—will direct the first musical to be staged in the renovated Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre (a.k.a. Cube Theatre) at Thalian Hall this week. “The Fantasticks” is a Fernando favorite—he even brought a touring production of it to UNCW two years ago as his last show of the season. (Fernando served as executive director of UNCW Presents before taking his current position at CFCC.)
“I have adored this show since the first time I saw it when I was a child,” he tells. “I had the privilege to see the original show in its original theater on Sullivan Street in NYC before it closed years ago. The work is performed with such a deceiving feeling of simplicity, but in reality every element of this show is extremely demanding of the artists—the music, language, blocking, props, lighting, etc.”
Its precise pacing and rhythm brings to life rampant emotions, from joy to sadness, anger to fear, nostalgia to thrill, according to Fernando. “It is light and funny, but also allows the audience to experience some dark elements of human nature.”
We interviewed Fernando about the Thalian run, which opens Thursday, May 12, and continues through Sunday, May 29.
encore (e): Is this your first time actually being a part of the production’s creation?
Shane Fernando (SF): This is my first time officially working on the production. I have seen it many times in a variety of venues around the country. I quasi-worked on it when I was a child. My mom was the costume designer for it at Thalian Hall years ago and I remember helping her with odd jobs backstage.
e: It’s a typical boy-meets-girl story, where each falls in and out of love, and meets destiny through romanticism. How is the tale timeless in your opinion?
SF: It is timeless—and the theme is truly universal, as the show has been a hit in every country it is performed. The show’s romanticism and even comedy has withstood time and the passing of generations. The timelessness can easily be captured with the first song—“Try to Remember,” when the narrator beckons each audience member to remember the time in their life, whether it was eighty years ago or last week, to that very first time that they fell in love, to that last moment we all stood at the brink of innocence.
e: It’s taken on variations and themes throughout its run as the longest musical—some using steampunk themes to adapt it, as seen a few years ago at UNCW. Are you taking any creative liberties with it that otherwise may have never been seen with “The Fantasticks”?
SF: It truly has undergone many adaptations through the years. I prefer this piece performed in an intimate setting; the Stein Theatre is a perfect venue for it. There are some elements I have taken directly from the original production designs, even many of the costume pieces and properties have been constructed to the original guidelines and sketches from the very first show. The music is the original score for just harp and piano. The setting itself is somewhat unique, as it definitely has a true sense of place, rather than the traditional nameless setting or empty stage. We have created a traveling show/circus type feel from a bygone era, showing the players as traveling performers, telling their stories.
e: Who’s your cast and why did you choose them for their respective roles? How are they fleshing out and impressing you with their characters?
SF: First thing was to find performers who can handle the music vocally. The music is almost abusive to the performers and musicians with the very demanding ranges, tempos, and sheer volume of music. The cast is remarkable!
Khawon Porter (El Gallo) is the narrator and elegantly portrays the ringleader of this group of players, telling their stories, while leading the audience to reflect on themselves.
Greg Beddingfield (The Boy) and Courtney Poland (The Girl), are ornaments to our stage with their exceptional vocals and adorable chemistry that is performed.
Jon Wallin and Michael Lauricella, are playful and lovable in their portrayal of the fathers.
Tony Rivenbark (Henry) and Eddie Waters (Mortimer) steal the show as “the players”—the clowns for the piece, painting a layer of ridiculousness and comic timing over the show.
Last, but not least, Jordan Spillers, as (The Mute): I know Jordan as a student as CFCC and a brilliant performer at shows at the college. He takes this challenging role (one that never leaves the stage), and makes it his own. He connects to all the other actors, as well as the audience, and serves as a mirror to the audience experience.
e: Give us an idea of the set and who’s constructed it.
SF: The set harkens to a traveling show/circus feel from a bygone era. Brightly painted flats and drapes, wooden crates and trunks, festooned drapery, tent poles, circus lights and tent ropes are strung throughout the set and into the audience, completing an immersive feel for the audience. “The Fantasticks” is a show that is written for intimacy. The audience accompanies the characters on their life journeys and the set design supports that experience. Gary Ralph Smith is our set designer. He is from Raleigh, but has a respected history of production design work in Wilmington spanning decades. Gary has come down to design and construct all of the Cube Theatre productions so far.
e: Chiaki Ito is doing music direction; what about this music enlightens the show in your opinion?
SF: We are so lucky to have Chiaki on the team. I had the privilege of working with her as my music director for “Blood Bloody Andrew Jackson” and am so happy to be working with her again. Her talent and understanding of this extremely challenging score has been such a boon for me and the performers.
Chiaki has led music for this show multiple times. We have decided to perform the show using the original score, which is simple harp and piano. I believe this is the first time this arrangement has been performed in Wilmington. The harp, performed by Christina Brier, paired with the piano create a striking sound due to its pure, crisp sound. At the same time the audience is able to appreciate the complexity and depth of the music with these two instruments as the stars.