The Fantasticks
October 19, 2012
The Rogue in Encore Musical Theatre Co., Reviews, musicals

Part bedtime story, part comedy-adventure, part life lesson, The Fantasticks (book and lyrics by Tom Jones; music by Harvey Schmidt) has endured for decades on the strength of its memorable songs and sweeping musings on courtship, love, and growing up. In the current production at the Encore Musical Theatre Company, director Barton Bund works outside-in to present a musical equally concerned with story and with storytelling itself. The ensuing sweet and light production harmlessly toys with the form while still honoring the story and style that have made this show a classic.

Bund’s premise finds the players annexing a playing space intended for some other production, a notion cemented by the commedia feel of Leo Babcock’s ornate but nonspecific backdrop. A rack full of idiomatic costumes (by Sharon Larkey Urick) becomes part of the preparations and leads to a darling innovation that doubles down on the sense of using every available resource. In this pre-show state, Daniel Walker’s lighting scheme is as deliberately wrong as it is dazzlingly right once the show gets on track. It’s a framing device that informs without dictating the fable that follows, leaving room for discoveries without insisting on itself.

At the heart of the story are a young man and the girl next door (Ryan Dooley and Thalia Schramm), who may be as in love with passion and drama as they are with each other. Their adoration is heightened by its forbidden nature: a high wall separates them, built by their disapproving fathers (Paul Hopper and Tobin Hissong). It’s no wonder their preferred method of communication is pretty love songs, helmed by music director Tyler Driskill, who also leads the accompanying piano/harp duo in charming reveries of romance. For their part, Dooley and Schramm are musically well suited to the material, but both are tentative about wallowing in the characters’ utter preciousness that comes part and parcel with their ignorance of the outside world.

Of course, what the children don’t know is that their fathers are secretly conspiring and encouraging their affection, in a reverse-psychology ploy they plan to resolve with a flourish. Enter El Gallo (Brian Thibault), a ne’er-do-well for hire who agrees to manufacture an artificial conflict and heroic resolution that will bring a storybook end to the false feud. Thibault’s playful take on the thief/vagabond narrator is that of a flamboyant pretender, propagating the gentlest of cons with an understated dichotomy of devilry and remorse. In conspiratorial moments, this particular interpretation blossoms in easy staging that allows for eavesdropping and compelling reactions. This applies to the dynamite team of Hissong and Hopper in particular, the latter in pliant matter-of-fact disdain, the former in uncomprehending adoration entirely befitting the father of a teenage girl.

Completing the play-acting portions of the story is a pair of used-up traveling performers; somewhere between Keith Kalinowski’s wistful aura as a Shakespearean thespian well past his prime, and Jamie Weeder’s quiet cockiness in her comically absurd theatrical-death expertise, the two meet to inject fire and fun in energetic moments of play. Finally, mute Gayle Martin is ever present and contemplative as she facilitates and weaves through the story, the main outlet for Barbara F. Cullen’s often-florid choreography. The sheer weight of the myriad elements and layers can accidentally trip up the proceedings; whenever a pleasant rhythm is established, it seems a few more things are piled on to clamor for attention. Another danger of the storytelling angle is that it can undermine the vitality of the story itself; however, the stakes pick up once the fairy-tale mantle is thrown off, such as in a telling second-act scene between Schramm and Thibault that ranks among the production’s most engrossing moments.

In all, this Fantasticks has an innovative feel, but is ultimately no more than a little different. The show’s underlying kindness, its stylized presentation, and its lessons about suffering and understanding are all intact. The production excels when it stays out of its own way and allows the adept ensemble to deliver, which it does with resonant grace and tender humor.

The Fantasticks is no longer playing.
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