Still trying to remember: Mackenzie Thomas and David Studwell in Syracuse Stage’s The Fantasticks. Michael Davis photo.
For Syracuse Stage’s current production,
director Peter Amster’s useful program notes tell where he’s taking us.
He wants to “increase its footprint and still retain its intimacy.”
This is a bigger, classier-looking, better-costumed Fantasticks than we’re used to seeing, yet paradoxically—in a show that loves paradox—it is also more astringent and lighter.
Scenic designer Scott Bradley has walled
off more than half the space on the Archbold stage so that we feel we
are inside a rough-paneled wooden box. We see the two pit musicians,
pianist David Nelson and harpist Deette Bunn, through a kind of window
upstage. Early on we are reminded of doors at left and right, trapdoors
below and a balcony above, all to be used, and there still has to be a
Amster inserts more than a dozen
innovations in the staging to signal to us how much he’s been thinking
about renewal. For starters there’s an allusion to Rene Magritte in the
bowler hat El Gallo wears at his entrance. The “rape” routine is
retained, but much emphasis is given to the notion of abduction instead
of sexual exploitation. Mortimer is still the comic sidekick in the
hired theatrical troupe, but now he’s a pirate with a parrot instead of
an Indian with a feather in his hair. When Mortimer descends to an
underground pool we hear John Williams’ music from Jaws (1975), which opened 15 years after The Fantasticks’ debut.
Especially appealing in Amster’s
mounting of the show is his slaying of the beast of lumbering whimsy.
True, the story is a spoof of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl
cliche, which has led hordes of community-theater companies to think
the show is a musical Hallmark card. Not here; there’s nothing this
time to raise your sugar levels.
Instead, Amster distances us from Matt
and Luisa from the opening scenes. Matt and Luisa’s sweetness is more
than equaled by their self-delusion. This sets the tone for the
disillusioning second act, an anti-romantic reversal of the first act
and an anticipation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. If the lovers are reunited at the end, the union has come at a cost.
El Gallo’s oft-cited second-act pronouncement is at the center of Amster’s vision of The Fantasticks:
“There is a curious paradox that no one can explain: Who understands
the secrets of the reaping of the grain? Who understands that spring is
born out of winter’s laboring pain, or why we must die a bit before we
grow again?” In lesser hands this sounds like a steal from Khalil
Gibran’s The Prophet, but it doesn’t come across as insipid
here. The reference to the death that precedes rebirth, plus the
continuing allusions to the vegetation cycle, suggest a reading of Sir
James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. We try to remember that kind of September not just for the euphony of the word itself but rather because it is harvest time.
In its intentions and musical score The Fantasticks
is a letter from a short-lived episode in American cultural history
between Elvis’ stint in the Army and the arrival of the Beatles when
rock’n’roll was briefly in retreat. It was a time when young Joan Baez
and Judy Collins were getting college students to think the F.J. Child
collection of traditional ballads was cool. Mass higher education was a
new thing for middle America, and Jones and Schmidt delight in showing
off what they’ve just read and what they know about the theater.
No other show performed regularly
expects us to know so much: Shakespeare, Dante, Watteau, the Arthurian
legends. And just as it draws on commedia dell’arte, Japanese Noh and
Thornton Wilder, so too it is about the transformative power of live
theater. This why it has been a bust as a TV show (even with Ricardo
Montalban as El Gallo!) and a movie (1995, with Joel Grey, which took
five years to get released).
Dramatically, The Fantasticks is
divided into three couples—the lovers, the fathers, the actors—plus two
singles, El Gallo and the Mute. For the wide range demanded, black-clad
El Gallo is easily the most rewarding role and has been the springboard
for many careers, including Jerry Orbach and F. Murray Abraham. David
Studwell brings the roguish eye, the worldly yet wise wit and resonant
baritone. His opening “Try to Remember” establishes a confidence in the
entire production. His grace allows effortless movement from being the
detached narrator to an engaged player, advising Luisa to forget her
crush on him.
Less rewarding is the role of the
white-faced Mute, and not just because mimes have generally fallen from
favor in the last 48 years. The makeup is not so heavy that we can’t
tell Alexa Silvaggio is a knockout beauty, and when our eyes turn to
her we can see she is following and underscoring every action, not just
when she’s throwing confetti.
First-class Broadway voices distinguish
Mackenzie Thomas’ Luisa and Eric Van Tielen’s Matt. Thomas has the
power, clarity and range for opera; her soprano glides through all of
Luisa’s scale-jumping high jinks with poise and ease. While their roles
are somewhat caricatured, both portray the swings from naive sincerity
to hard-won maturity without any winking camp. Both are fleet-footed
and lithe, giving the production a certain balletic quality.
William J. Norris, who makes his local
debut in this co-production with Indiana Repertory Theatre, and Robert
K. Johansen, seen at Syracuse Stage in The Grapes of Wrath and The Unexpected Guest,
steal every scene they’re in as Henry and Mortimer, the cut-rate
thespians hired by El Gallo for the abduction. Some of their fun comes
from the extra measures director Amster has allowed, especially the
better wigs and costumes (from designer Maria Marrero) and trap doors,
but more from sheer talent. They make a perfectly matched pair: Norris’
Henry is a balloon of pomposity and self-importance, Johansen’s
Mortimer a rubber-faced clown who can get laughs by wriggling his nose.
Opening-night miscues, alas, marred the
roles of the girl’s father, Bellomy (Charles Goad), and the boy’s dad,
Hucklebee (Mark Goetzinger). Those weaknesses will surely be corrected
as the run progresses.
Many jaded theatergoers groaned when
former artistic director Robert Moss slated this seemingly shopworn
bon-bon two springs ago, only to be bumped by the runaway train called Menopause: The Musical.
Now it is the last selection from his Syracuse Stage tenure, as well as
Moss’ reminder to us that the magic of live theater is ever-renewable.
This production runs through May 18. See Times Table for information.