Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lessons Learned from Theatre West's The Fantasticks

The cast of The Fantasticks. Photo by Thomas Mikusz

“Be careful what you wish for” could easily be the subtitle of the long-running off-Broadway musical, The Fantasticks, now in production at Theatre West. It’s a lesson everyone learns in the process of growing up, and for the young couple at the heart of the show, the price is a loss of innocence they never imagined. 

The 1960 allegorical story introduces a troupe of players who arrive to tell the tale of Matt and Luisa, next door neighbors separated by a wall their feuding fathers have built to keep them apart. Though forbidden to speak to each other, they disregard their parents, fall in love by the light of the moon, and plan to live happily ever after. Of course, that’s been their fathers’ scheme all along, but when the couple realizes they’ve been manipulated and they see their relationship in the light of day, it’s clear that the bloom is off the rose. Disillusioned, they separate to seek happiness and adventure elsewhere but the road of life delivers them some painful lessons. In the end, they find their way back to each other, wiser for the wear and ready to face the world together.

For The Fantasticks to be effective it requires that the story be told clearly, simply, and without clutter. Unfortunately, Theatre West’s well-intentioned cast never quite feels in control of the material. One concern is seeing actors (not all, but many) stop acting when they begin to sing; another is a less-than-stellar execution of Charlie Mount's staging that leaves the audience confused about what is happening.

Molly Reynolds makes an awkwardly sweet Luisa but her operatic singing voice, though lovely, overpowers the music and distracts from the innocent simplicity of songs like “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You.” Joey Jennings has a natural likeability that works for Matt's naïveté but seems uncomfortable in his body, acting mostly from the elbows down. When he loses himself in the action, however, he is very charming. 

Comic relief is provided by Steve Nevil (Hucklebee) and Roger Kent Cruz (Bellomy) as a Laurel and Hardy pair of dads, with Nevil getting the best punch lines. They are at their funniest in their duet “Never Say No” in which they commiserate about their children’s contrary behavior. Cruz had some missteps, not blatant, but enough to be noticeable to those of us sitting directly in front of him. More problematic was Don Moss’ (Henry) unfocused rambling take on Henry, the Shakespearean actor El Gallo uses to enact Luisa’s abduction.

Mount also misses an opportunity with the beautiful Lee Meriwether who plays The Mute. Costumed like Mother Nature, she is a calming maternal presence onstage and even has a bit of fun when she plays the wall, but other than that is not much more than a go-to props mistress and confetti thrower. Lukas Bailey fails to impress as El Gallo, lacking the charismatic, commanding presence and vocal ability to do justice to the role.

Jeff G. Rack's portable set gives a festive 'traveling show' feel to the production. Trunks hold a myriad of props and double as a magical doorway, a swath of glittery fabric represents the world, and construction paper confetti becomes all seasons. Lighting director Yancey Dunham creates a beautiful effect on the pre-show drapery and continues it nicely throughout the show. 

The Fantasticks: Theatre West, 333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles, CA 90068 through October 7. Understudy performances are Sept 7 - 9 with Leona Britton as The Mute and Charlie Mount as Mortimer. Tickets for all performances are available at www.theatrewest.org or by calling (323) 851-7977.

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