Sunday, April 21, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "The Fantasticks"

Director Kristy Meanor's tight acting ensemble make the two-plus hours of The Fantasticks fly by. The world's longest running musical [42 years in its first off-Broadway incarnation] by Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (book and lyrics) is playing at the Wetumpka Depot, its charm intact since its 1960 debut.

With its memorable songs -- "Try to Remember", "Soon It's Gonna Rain", "Metaphor", "The Abduction Ballet", "Plant a Radish", "They Were You" among the best -- and spot-on accompaniment by Marilyn Swears (piano) and Trey Hollady (percussion), the tale of Luisa's [Patty Holley] and Matt's [David Brown] guileless romance comes with substantial inspiration from pulp fiction novels, Shakespeare, classical mythology, and Edmund Rostand's "Les Romanesques".

Their story is peppered with reverse psychology, a dashing "bandit" who will for a price stage Luisa's abduction with the help of a couple of inept has-been actors and enable Matt to become a hero in her eyes, and a clear message that moonlit happy endings come only after experiencing the world in the harsh glare of sunlight. -- In short, the naive teenaged Luisa and Matt have to grow up a bit before they can find true happiness.

This theme is signaled at the start by the Narrator [Jimmy Veasey] inviting the audience to "Try to Remember" the innocence of youth with a reminder that rose colored glasses often disguise life's realities, and that "without a hurt, the heart is hollow". Mr. Veasey manipulates the plot as he assumes the role of "El Gallo", the bandit whose escapades and advice to the adolescents and their fathers is central to the outcome; he demonstrates a solid grasp of the character, showing both a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling style and a compassion for the young couple; with a strong singing voice and an ability to engage the audience, his performance holds it all together.

Veteran actors Lee Bridges and Tom Salter are an excellent double-act playing Hucklebee and Bellomy, the fathers of the teenaged couple. They plot to bring their children together by inventing a false feud between their families and building a wall between their properties, expecting rightly that the children will rebel. -- They hire El Gallo to "abduct" Luisa, following which there is a lot of unravelling to do. Both Mr. Bridges and Mr. Salter appear so comfortable in truthfully rendering the dialogue that there is never a moment we don't believe them; they deliver songs with vaudevillian elan; and they have excellent comic timing.

The broader comedy of The Fantasticks is handled by the coarse-acting talents of Ed Drozdowski [Mortimer] and Bill Nowell [Henry]. Mr. Drozdowski's exaggerated death scene and Mr. Nowell's continual confusion of Shakespearean dialogue are given with unabashed gusto and complete ignorance of their ineptitude, contributing to the hilarity of each situation as they "assist" El Gallo in the abduction.

Jeff Langham plays The Mute, a kind of on-stage assistant, props provider, and silent commentator on the proceedings, whose shrugs and glances at the audience make us complicit in the plot; we share in the enjoyment.

But, the romantic story is the center of it all. We can laugh ruefully at the naivete of both Luisa and Matt at the beginning, recognize their frustrations when each one's flaws are revealed, sympathize as they come to terms with burgeoning adulthood, and celebrate their eventual happy ending. Mr. Brown shows an innocence that changes credibly as he grows up before our eyes. Ms. Holley, a high school junior in her first performance at the Depot, is someone to watch...and watch her we do; her radiant smile lights up the stage, she interprets songs with a strong soprano voice, and the subtle shifts from a simple schoolgirl to a young adult make her performance riveting. -- It doesn't hurt that the chemistry between them works from the start.

The set is overly busy for the simple context of the play [a lot of unnecessary stage dressing and time consuming manipulation of scenic drapes], and the lighting, while mostly effective in establishing mood often leaves actors in shadow. --- But a great word of thanks to the Wetumpka Depot for not over amplifying instruments or putting body microphones on the actors, but trusting them to deliver the goods on their own. Would that more theatres would follow suit.