REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
The Fantasticks, which holds the record for the longest run of any musical production (42 years and over 17,000 performances between 1960 and 2002) is, for some reason, rarely performed in Ventura County. The last time was in 2008 at the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark. The new production, staged by Panic! Productions, is perfect for the black box theater at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, because of its intimate setting, which does not require amplification or head mikes for the performers.
Director Joshua Finkel, known for his meticulous direction, has done a fabulous job, not only in the perfect casting for this show, but for the seamless way the show flows from scene to scene, balancing the whimsy and hilarity of the script with Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s luminescent score. Finkel was also responsible for instituting a few twists in the set design that turned out to brilliantly enhance the production.
The story is simple: the courtship of two young lovers, with their fathers playing matchmakers. Like Sondheim’s Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George, Act II is an after-story, showing the real-life consequences of a happily-ever-after fairy tale.
Although each character plays a major role in the story, The Fantasticks is anchored by its central figure, El Gallo, the rogue-for-hire who also serves as the show’s narrator. As El Gallo, John Gaston makes his entrance, a la Houdini, from one of Finkel’s innovations: a telephone-booth-sized box, with a front and back door, decorated with the familiar diamond-shaped “lozenge” motif that traditionally connects art, nature, and the universe. (In modal logic, the lozenge expresses that there is “possibility.”) With the added aura of a magician, Gaston breezes through his scenes like Don Quixote. He sings a glorious “Try to Remember,” one of the few signature songs from a musical that is the first full song performed in a show. The “telephone booth” is used throughout the show; on wheels, it becomes a vehicle from which Luisa sings “Round and Round,” while being spun about the set.
The young lovers, Luisa and Matt, are played by two extraordinary performers: Katie Hume and Christian Thomas. There is no sweeter Broadway love affair than the one shared by these two characters, and Hume and Thomas exhibit that sweetness with gorgeous voices and a light-heartedness that is touching and believable. Hume is perky and girlish in her interpretation as Luisa; a princess in Act I (“I am special,” she chirps.) and then adding a little spice and impertinence in Act II. She is like a young Bernadette Peters; her best moments come when she sings her Act I solo, “Much More,” and the Act II duet with Thomas, “They Were You.”
As the lovers’ fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, Paul Panico and Robert Weibezahl use reverse psychology to bring Luisa and Matt together. (“To manipulate children, you merely say no,” is their credo, a basic truism of parenting.) Each has different ideas on how to grow the perfect garden, one by constant pruning, the other by incessant watering. (The metaphor of the garden reflects the “growing” relationship of Luisa and Matt.) Both Panico and Weibezahl deliver delightful performances, especially in the duet “Plant a Radish,” in which they compare their gardening and parenting techniques.
El Gallo’s partners in crime bring in two of the great character actors on the Ventura County scene: Jim Seerden as Henry and Andrew Metzger as Mortimer. The two are like the King and the Duke in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Seerden, prancing about like a Shakespearean clown, and Metzger, as the struggling actor whose specialty is overdramatic dying on stage. Metzger, who has the expressive eyebrows of John Belushi, is especially good. (Metzger moonlights as a Jack Sparrow-like pirate in his off-stage life, so when he makes his first entrance in a pirate get-up, it’s like slipping on a comfortable pair of pajamas.)
Rounding out the cast is Michelle Miller as the Muse, a sort of combination Greek chorus and prop mistress, whose job it is to hand the characters items and then whisk them away when they are done with them. Her pixieish presence is quite endearing, as are her silent facial reactions to the silly goings-on.
Ben Ginsberg (piano) and Jeff Gibson (playing a synthesizer that emits sounds emulating everything from a harp to percussion effects) comprise the “orchestra.” Diann Alexander did a splendid job directing the singers, while Finkel, a swashbuckling El Gallo himself in real life, provided the breezy choreography. The exquisite and sensitive lighting design is by Shaun Hara. We don’t normally credit stage techs, but in the case of The Fantasticks, we must mention Mariah Tobin, a fine young actress and singer herself, who managed to add a touch of whimsy to her scurrying about, pushing set pieces hither and yon. She was important enough to the cast to warrant standing with everyone else for the curtain bows.
“Try to Remember” to buy tickets for The Fantasticks. The show plays through September 21 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. For dates, show times, and ticket information, see the VC On Stage Calendar.