Theatre Review: “The Fantasticks” at the IRT

Most of the cast of “The Fantasticks” at the IRTLast Saturday night I took a guest with me to see “The Fantasticks” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  I had been looking forward to this show ever since the IRT first announced its 2007-2008 season.  I had seen only one other production of it, and only very recently, but I had good memories associated with it from way back.

Years ago, when I was maybe seven or eight years old, my parents bought a piano.  The first piece of sheet music my mother bought (or maybe my father bought it for her) was a collection of songs from “The Fantasticks.”  I remember being enthralled by the booklet’s purple cover; purple was my favorite color at the time.  But even better: my mother sang and played the songs on our new piano.  I loved those songs!  When my mother got tired of playing, I would pour over the song book on my own.

I had no idea that the songs were from a story about a couple of fathers who plot to make their kids fall in love by keeping them apart.  I had no idea that it was about what happens after “happily ever after.”

I just loved the songs and how funny they were.  The instruction song, for example, with its many repetitions:  “Try to remember and if you remember, then follow…follow, follow, follow, follow…”  The song about the enviably naughty kids putting beans in their ears and jam on the cat.   The preposterous song about the reliability of vegetables. 

(Any elementary school child who has ever had to plant seeds in a cup can tell you that you do NOT always “plant a radish (and) get a radish.”  Sometimes you just get dirt.)

When the wind picks up and the sky darkens, I still sing the comforting and easily applied “Soon it’s gonna rain…I can feel it!…Soon it’s gonna rain…rain pell mell” and imagine building a clubhouse out of a card table and a sheet.  I have been singing this song a lot this past month.

So when I went to the IRT last Saturday night, I felt as if I were finally going to spend time with a celebrity friend of the family with whom I had been corresponding for a long, long time.

But as I say, it wasn’t the very first time for us to meet.  Last fall I saw a production of “The Fantasticks” at the Center Stage Community Theatre of Lebanon, Indiana.   I didn’t get a chance to write about it at the time, but I was glad to have seen it.  It introduced me to the show’s darkness, for one thing – the Lebanon depiction of young Matt going out into the world was very disturbing – and it helped me accept the fact that “The Fantasticks” is not a show for children after all, but a show for adults.   I am not a child any more, either.  (sigh)

The Lebanon production also alerted to me to a couple of political correctness issues connected with the show and made me curious:  how would the IRT handle them?  Laurie Atwater, the Lebanon director, chose to retain the now offensive language and images of the original piece.  She explained why in the program.  I’m sorry: I can not find my program from that show now, or I would quote it to you.  Basically, I think, she just wanted to remain true to the original.

I suspected that the IRT would tweak these aspects, though, and sure enough, in the IRT production “a pretty little rape” becomes “a pretty little abduction.”  (That song was not in my mother’s songbook at all, by the way.  Or if it was, it went completely over my young head.)   The stereotyped Native American Indian becomes a wacky pirate (Robert K. Johansen) with a parrot on his shoulder.

I knew that the two productions would be very different in other ways because one was performed by volunteers in a very intimate space with a very low budget, while the other is well funded and performed by professional actors with a professional design team in a well equipped and fairly large space.  I like seeing all kinds of theatre, and I have a lot of respect for volunteers, but, like the song says, “It depends on what you pay.”  I had very high expectations for the IRT’s production.

It did not disappoint me.  “The Fantasticks” at the IRT has the delicious richness, the deeply considered attention to detail that I have come to expect from this theatre.   The humorous aspects are cathartically funny, and the singing made me swoon.

The two fathers (Chuck Goad and Mark Goetzinger) are completely huggable.  They bustle about their adjoining gardens, arguing about horticulture and setting up their well-intentioned schemes.  First they hire the Mute (Alexa Silvaggio) to build a wall to separate Luisa (Mackenzie Thomas) and Matt (Erik VanTielen) and cause them to want each other.   Then they hire El Gallo (David Studwell) to abduct Luisa so that Matt will have to rescue her, thereby causing them to fall even more deeply in love.

The two bumbling guys who assist El Gallo – Henry (William J. Norris) and Mortimer (Robert K. Johansen) – are a hoot.

Matt and Luisa are very sweet.  I and the other middle-aged adults in the audience laughed when the teenaged Luisa said, “I love to taste my tears…I am special…please, God, please, don’t let me be normal.”  

We laughed, too, when Matt said, “There is this girl,” as if he were the first person to have discovered the mystery of the opposite sex.

But our inner teenagers knew just what they were talking about.  And we all sang along in our hearts, remembering, as the young lovers sang, “Love, you are love…better than a metaphor can ever be.”

Later in the show, as Matt discovers that the wide world is not as exciting as he had thought it would be, especially when he is out there on his own, and as Luisa lets herself be blinded to Matt’s agonies and duped by the dashing El Gallo, I am sure I was not the only person in the audience who was cringing in sympathy, remembering my own mistakes.

But I was delighted by the many ways that the director, Peter Amster, and the actors and designers highlighted the surrealism that is inherent in “The Fantasticks.”  I loved that the artwork of Rene Magritte was their visual inspiration, from the gauze covering the actors’ faces in the beginning, to the giant eyeball at the back of the set, and more.

I loved that scenic designer Scott Bradley made the whole set, itself, into a box of props, rather than doing the traditional thing and having a bare stage with a box of props on it.   Doors and windows flap open all over the set, like secret compartments.   Props – everything from wooden swords to glittering rain to hilarious sharks – pop out through slots or fall from the ceiling or emerge from other props.

I loved that Maria Marrero’s costume designs are a juxaposition of looks from various times and places.  Luisa’s swirly pink dress and lavender shoes and hair ribbons are especially pleasing, especially appropriate for her girlish character.

I caught a lot more of the rhyming in the language in this production.  It is somehow both odd and natural-sounding at the same time.  I.e. – it provides another layer of surrealism.

However, much as I admired the acting, the singing, and the surreal elements of the show, I realize as I’m writing this blog post that what I love most about the IRT’s production of “The Fantastics” is that everything comes together to make it a show about remembering.  Remembering all of one’s life – every idyllic, frustrating, terrifying, maturing, mellowing, stage of it – and still feeling hopeful about the future, still feeling the capacity for love.

It is a show that children can enjoy, but only adults can fully appreciate.

It does matter where you sit, though, whatever your age.  My guest, Dane Rogers, told me that he had already seen the IRT’s production of “The Fantasticks” earlier in the week, from the center balcony.  Our seats were on the main floor, but at the far left of the house.  I would not have known that you can see the pianist (David Nelson) and the harpist (Wendy Muston) on stage if you are sitting more towards the center, except that Dane told me.  I am sorry that I did not get to enjoy the music as a visual layer as well as an aural layer of beauty in the show. 

At intermission, Dane also said that you appreciate the mime (the Mute, played by Alexa Silvaggio) more when you sit closer to the center and/or on the balcony.  After he said that, I made an effort to watch her more deliberately.  I agree with Dane that she is worth watching.  Her contribution to the show is subtle and entrancing.  I loved that she played so many small percussion instruments, too: finger cymbals, rattle, tambourine, tom-tom, and more.

Even without Dane’s comments alerting me to what I was missing, I found it hard to see the set pieces for the various foreign countries that Matt visits.  I couldn’t see what was happening to him, either, in those places, which maybe was a good thing, because who wants to see torture up close?  But it still felt frustrating.

But you know what?  I loved the show anyway.  El Gallo says, “Hear it” (life) “with the inside of your hands…celebrate sensation.”  I saw parts of the show with the soles of my feet, or something.  Ultimately, that was enough.

“The Fantasticks” continues at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through June 22.   Please call 317-635-5252 to make a reservation.

I also want to mention that “The Fantasticks'” book and lyrics are by Tom Jones with music by Harvey Schmidt.  The music director and conductor for the IRT’s production is David Nelson.  The lighting designer is Ann G. Wrightson.  The sound designer is Todd Mack Reischman.  The dramaturg is Richard J. Roberts.  Nathan Garrison is the stage manager.   The artistic director of the IRT is Janet Allen.  The IRT’s managing director is Steven Stolen.  This show was co-produced with the Syracuse Stage, whose producing artistic director is Timothy Bond and whose managing director is Jeffrey Woodward.

My guest for this show, Dane Rogers, is rehearsing “Pippin” at the Wayne Township Community Theatre.  It will run August 8-17, 2008.  I am looking forward to seeing that show, too!

Hope Baugh –

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