The world’s longest-running musical (aka The Fantasticks) makes for a crowd-pleasing Pasadena Playhouse season opener thanks not only to its time-tested appeal but also to an excitingly contemporary director’s concept and cast choices that celebrate diversity in the most refreshing of ways.
But first a confession. The Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt chamber musical, one that chalked up 17,162 performances over its 42-year off-Broadway run (and is currently back off-Broadway again) has never been one of my favorites. I find it a tad too quaint, occasionally too artsy, and a bit too lengthy for the tale it has to tell.
That being said, director Seema Sueko’s staging works wonders, beginning with a cast whose voices soar both in the much-covered standards “Try To Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and in lesser-known gems like “I Can See It” and “They Were You.”
Sueko’s decision to set The Fantasticks inside an “old, abandoned, dilapidated” theater adds poignancy and depth to the now iconic “Try To Remember,” whose recollection of “a kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow” rings truer than ever, particularly for a production opening fifteen years to the day after September 11, 2001 changed the world as we knew it. (Point of fact: The Pasadena Playhouse was itself shut down from ’69 to ’85 and The Fantasticks was the last show seen there for sixteen years.)
Not surprisingly, scenic designer David F. Weiner’s heightened replication of what the Playhouse might have looked like following a decade and a half of disrepair, accumulated detritus and all, is a stunner, one that a fictional band of strolling players first stumble into, then resurrect with an “improvised” tale of young lovers (Conor Guzmán as Matt and Ashley Park as Luisa) tricked into falling in love by their supposedly feuding (but actually matchmaking) fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy (Gedde Watanabe and Regi Davis) .
Adding to the theatrical magic are swashbuckling narrator El Gallo (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez), a pair of veteran thespians straight out of a Fractured Fairytale (Hal Linden as Henry and Amir Talai as Mortimer), and “The Mute” (Alyse Rockett), who observes the action, hands out props, impersonates a plot-pivotal wall, and sprinkles raindrops and snowflakes on star-crossed young lovers.
Though rather too large a venue for a musical as intimate as The Fantasticks (particularly if you are seated as far from the stage as this reviewer found himself at Sunday’s opening), the Pasadena Playhouse nonetheless comes through with inspired staging and performances that could not be improved upon.
Most importantly, the musical’s core message—“Without a hurt, the heart is hollow”—remains as potent as ever as we follow Matt and Luisa in their journey from innocence to knowledge to disappointment to an understanding of the true meaning of love.
It probably took a good many years into The Fantasticks’ four-decade run for performers of color to make their first entrances on the Sullivan Street Playhouse stage.
All the more reason, therefore, to trumpet Sueko’s and casting director Becky Lythgoe’s rainbow-hued ensemble (and to wonder why the current lily-white off-Broadway production still hasn’t gotten the message).
Anthony-Rodriguez’s El Gallo anchors The Fantasticks with charm, charisma, and gorgeous vocals, from his initial role as narrator to the major part he ends up playing in Luisa’s sexual awakening.
Guzmán (fresh from Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Little Mermaid) and Park (the luminous Tuptim of the recent Broadway King & I revival) are as sweetly innocent (and as teenage-frisky) as Matt and Luisa should be, and their solos and duets define heavenly.
The venerable Linden is paired to mismatched perfection with the impish Talai, whose highly original “death scene” proves a particular treat; Davis and Watanabe make for a delightfully Mutt-&-Jeff-like couple of initially conspiratorial, later battling dads; and Rockett brings agility and flair to the pivotal Mute without singing or speaking a word, executing the greater part of Kitty McNamee’s graceful choreography.
Though given my druthers, I’d opt for the kind of rich accompaniment that a three-to-five-piece orchestra would bring to Schmidt’s exquisite melodies, there’s no faulting the musical virtuosity of musical director/onstage pianist David O (accompanied every once in a while by Leisl Erman on harp).
Shirley Pierson’s imaginative costumes, accessorized as plot twists demand, fit Sueko’s concept to a T. Josh Epstein’s evocative lighting design goes from subtle shadings to sun-drenched radiance. Joe Huppert’s sound design mix insures pure, clear amplified vocals. Fight choreographer Tim Weske even gives us some Errol Flynn-ready swordplay.
Lurie Horns Pfeffer is production stage manager. Joe Witt is general manager. Brad Enlow is technical director. Christopher Cook is associate technical director and production manager.
If El Gallo’s wish for “the kind of September when no one wept except the willow” already seemed the stuff of dreams when The Fantasticks made its March 1960 debut, it proves an even more impossible dream today. What better times than these, then, for the Fantasticks to fill the Pasadena Playhouse with its unique blend of laughter, tears, nostalgia, and hope.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
September 11, 2016
Photos: Jim Cox