Saturday, August 14, 2010

Faulkner: "The Fantasticks"

What can you say about "The Fantasticks" -- in the 50th Anniversary of its initial production, now in an updated version by its originators, Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt? It has an assured place in the annals of American Musical Theatre history, having touched generations of theatre patrons with its signature opening song: "Try to Remember". Currently playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre to sold out audiences, this deceptively gentle and innocent musical keeps its viewers engaged throughout its two-plus hour running time through its delightful characterizations and intelligent musical score.

The story of young love between the romantic Luisa [Anna Sailors] and the equaly naively heroic Matt [Chase McMichen] is put to the test by their Fathers -- Hucklebee [Chris Kelly] and Bellomy [Tony Davidson] who have feigned a neighbors feud in order to pair up the couple; after all, as one of the songs they sing states, children will do the opposite of what they're told by their parents.

To make this happen, they enlist the aid of El Gallo [Matthew Dickson] and his cohorts Henry [Sam Evans] and Mortimer [Braxton McDonald] to stage an "abduction" of Luisa which Matt will thwart, emerge the hero, and settle the family feud...all a farcical trick played out by moonlight.

Come the dawn, and the stark bright light of day, the romanticized relationship is put to the test as reality shows all the little flaws and foibles the night had disguised; result -- disappointment and disillusion. -- Yet, all will be resolved with a happy ending, with life experience as the teacher.

Under Angela Dickson's assured direction and Randy Foster's masterly piano accompaniment, the cast of Faulkner regulars and community actors provide a thoroughly entertaining and touching performance. -- Unlike most of the Faulkner musicals with large ensembles of actors, this one has a mere nine performers, two of whom are "Mutes" [Kari Gatlin & Michael Williams] who supply props, change drapes, and mirror the behavior of the young couple. -- The focus is therefore on the individual actors all the time.

And, they are up to it. The score is demanding, requiring mature voices, subtle dynamics and phrasing, and keen ears for melody lines and harmonics; and the range of song types goes from hauntingly romantic duets, to novelty numbers, to comic narratives, to complex quartets -- all fitting the characters and furthering the plot.

Ms. Sailors' clear voice and effervescent depiction are matched by Mr. McMichen's rich tones and youthful bravado, but it is in the chemistry they make that the love match is best communicated; their commitment ot each other -- though intimately portrayed on stage -- reaches out to the entire audience.

Mr. Davidson and Mr. Kelly are an excellent double-act as the fathers: a lot of good-hearted bluster and comfort with each other is grand. Each actor is developing a naturalness and stage comfort that makes them easy to watch.

Mr. Evans' "coarse-actor" who can't remember Shakespeare's lines but insists on continuing by improvising, is a hoot; and Mr. McDonald's cockney second-banana who stages "death-scenes" can steal the show.

Mr. Dickson's El Gallo has much to praise: he is narrator and participant, simultaneously suave and awkward, a masterful man in charge who can be thwarted in the cause of true love. He sets the tone of the play, plays the villain with elan, and disappears into the background when necessary -- a consumately generous actor.

Jason Peregoy's fight choreography fits the style of the play, and has numerous clever touches of combat mixed with romance. -- Yet it is the songs that dominate: "Soon It's Gonna Rain", "Love, You Are Love", "It Depends On What You Pay", and "Plant A Radish" among them keep the plot moving and keep us involved in the lives of these delightful characters.