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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Fantasticks Doesn't Quite Live Up to Its Billing

Posted By on Wed, Jul 8, 2015 at 8:50 AM

Insight Theatre's Fantasticks. - JOHN LAMB
  • John Lamb
  • Insight Theatre's Fantasticks.

The Fantasticks is an unassailable classic of American theater. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's allegorical musical had a legendary 42-year run off-Broadway, weathering the social changes of the 1960s, '70s and '80s with ease. The simplicity of the story allows audiences of any era to relate: to see themselves in the young lovers just starting out, the middle-aged fathers who attempt to control their little corner of the world and the old actors who exist on the fringes of society.

And yet there is something not quite engaging in Insight Theatre's production. Director Maggie Ryan has assembled a solid cast, and the show's rhyming dialogue still has a dreamlike quality that sparks — but this Fantasticks never quite catches fire.

Luke Shryock's set incorporates a red-and-white circus tent as the backdrop, with battered and faded risers painted red, white and blue. Just visible behind the risers are conductor/pianist Catherine Edwards Kopff, bassist Guy Cantonwine, percussionist Adam Kopff and harpist Megan Stout.

The show opens with the old standard "Try to Remember," sung by the main characters as they finish dressing for their roles. It's a wistful song that here becomes almost somnambulant in tempo; it makes for a surprisingly slow start, and unfortunately the gentle, sing-song pacing of the next four songs combines to drag the show to a halt before it's really begun. It feels less like a living, vibrant show than a museum piece meant to remind us of its classic status.

Christina Ramirez and Adam Hunn play the young lovers Luisa and Matt. They pine for each other over the wall that separates their yard, wanting to be together but unable to meet because of their fathers' feigned feud. Michael Brightman and Tom Murray are their respective fathers, Bellomy and Hucklebee, who together built the wall solely to make their children pine for one another.

Hunn has a crooner's stylings, smooth and mellow, while Ramirez has a big, bright voice that suits her character's youth. At sixteen, Luisa dreams only of falling in love and getting married, preferably to Matt. He's back from college, well educated but knowing nothing of the broader world. In the second act, they're both battered by the reality of life outside their back yards and are wiser for it. They're stock characters — the callow youth and the lovelorn girl — and unfortunately they stay stock characters. Their love songs are pleasant but not passionate, and they never quite come across as anything but archetypes.

Brightman and Murray have more success bringing Bellomy and Hucklebee to life. Brightman plays Bellomy as a fussy, persnickety man who wants the best for his daughter, but he doesn't want it to cost him too much. Murray's Hucklebee is bluff and loud, willing to pay anything to see the young lovers wed; behind his overalls and frequent dismissals of his son as an ass, there's an old romantic who remembers his own September. The pair romp through "Never Say No," a song about using reverse psychology on children to control them, and they get big laughs in "It Depends on What You Pay," in which they try to strike a bargain with El Gallo (Martin Fox), the bandit they've hired to "abduct" Luisa so Matt can rescue her and appear heroic.

About that abduction: The controversy surrounding Tom Jones' use of the word "rape" in the archaic sense of "to abduct" in "Rape Ballet" has resulted in anger on both sides of the argument. There are alternate lyrics authorized for the production, and director Ryan opted to use the newer title, "Abduction Ballet," for the song. Still, "rape" is in the lyrics, and the number of people at the performance I attended who jerked back in shock and surprise when the word was sung in a comic song is telling. It's a far different world these days, and since the only female character in the show is a marriage-hungry teenager who is about to be abducted, it's maybe better to avoid using "rape" entirely. For the record, none of the older audience members seemed fazed by it.

As for El Gallo, Fox does solid work bringing the amoral bandit (and our narrator) to life. He's quick with a wry look and flips his half-cape back with authority, and his scenes with the aged actor Henry (Joneal Joplin), whom he hires to help sell the abduction of Luisa, elevate the show.

The pair make the rhymed dialogue sing as they banter about Henry's qualifications, and Joplin's first exit reminds us how good The Fantasticks can be. Joplin recites a mishmash of great Shakespearean monologues, then slowly disappears inside a magic trunk at center stage. "Remember light," he pleads as he ducks his head down. It's a reminder that nothing good can stay, that we all pass from September to December. And while this production has some wonderful moments, it, too, is far from its glory days.

The Fantasticks Through July 18 at the Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves. Tickets are $15 to $35. Call 314-556-1293 or click here.

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