Theater Review | freeFall’s Fantasticks Is Worth Revisiting

Photos courtesy of Steven Le
Pictured, from left, are Paul Helm, Grace Choi, Cameron Kubly, Patrick Ryan Sullivan and Michael Ursua.

Theater Review | freeFall’s Fantasticks Is Worth Revisiting

The musical theater standby is a surprising delight thanks to freeFall’s first-rate production — puppets notwithstanding.

By KEVEN RENKEN | Oct. 19, 2018


Full disclosure:  I have never been a big fan of The Fantasticks.

Oh sure, it ran for about a bazillion years Off-Broadway, but we all know that isn’t necessarily an indication of quality (another show, Perfect Crime, has also been playing forever, and it’s basically crap).  It really just feels somewhat too slight, simple to the point of being precious, to be anything substantial or worthwhile.

So it was with a healthy degree of trepidation that I approached freeFall Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks (running now through Oct. 21).  And lo and behold, a funny thing happened on the way to the theater – the much-dreaded simplicity was one of its greatest strengths.

When freeFall plays it straight, which is most of the time, the production sparkles.  It’s only when director Eric Davis (freeFall artistic director) tarts things up that the show loses its shine.  For instance, those puppets …

But first the book by Tom Jones (with music and lyrics by Jones and Harvey Schmidt), which tells a tale as old as time.  Luisa (Grace Choi) and Matt (Cameron Kubly) are two young people deeply in love. They are, however, forbidden to see each other by their feuding fathers, who have even built a wall to keep the two apart.  Of course, being forbidden only fuels the fire – but that’s okay, because that’s what they were hoping for (“To manipulate children, you simply say no.”).  They stage an abduction (a far more distasteful term was used in the early days of the show) so that Matt will “save” Luisa and everyone will be so grateful that the feud will end and everyone will live happily ever after.

But not so fast, since that’s only the end of the first act, and “Life never ends in the moonlight day.”  In the light of day, burnished by the sun, nothing looks as beautiful or romantic as it did at night (Luisa notes that Matt “looks different in the sunlight” while Matt says “When you get right down to it, she’s only the girl next door.”), and things must, as they do, go awry for a bit before they can be set right again.

And clearly this cast is up to the task.  Choi and Kubly give workmanlike performances as the young lovers (Choi has an especially lovely singing voice).  Though Daniel Schwab is sometimes lackluster as one of the scalawags hired to stage the abduction (killer death scene notwithstanding), the other scoundrel is played by Roxanne Fay, whose warmth and generosity of spirit is evident in everything she does on stage.

Patrick Ryan Sullivan rocks a distinctly Bruce Campbell vibe as El Gallo, the narrator (and so much more) of the proceedings, though Paul Helm and Michael Ursua are the true standouts of this production.  Not only is it a blast to watch them hustle between a series of pianos to accompany the show (kudos also to Meredith Coffman, whose skills with the harp add immeasurably), but there is also a real zing to their exchanges that prove to be a highlight of the piece.

Which might help distract (somewhat) from the unfortunate addition of the puppets.  Yes, we’re back to the puppets.  It felt extremely gratuitous, but also more than a little derivative, as if someone (please, Eric Davis, tell me it wasn’t you!) thought that if Avenue Q could do it then this musical could do it just as well.  Not so.  Unlike Avenue Q, where the actors are simply an extension of the characters, the puppeteers here are actually the characters themselves … holding carbon copies of themselves?  It comes across as more than a little bizarre.  I mean, which version of the character does the poor audience look at?  It gets even worse when the Dads come on.  Because the actors’ hands need to be free to play, the puppeteering duties fall to other performers. And sometimes they aren’t in the same area on stage, so the spectators are put in an even more awkward position of having to choose who to watch.  Unnecessary and far too clunky for such a delicate show as this.

Fortunately, the rest of the production is first-rate, and up to freeFrall’s usual high standards.  The puppets are gone by the second act (El Gallo has one line that supposedly explains their existence and subsequent absence) and one is left with the easy ebb and flow of the actors (one inventive use of an entrance, thanks to set designer Tom Hansen, is particularly fun).

The songs and dialogue are a kind of poetry (“Try to Remember” is practically above reproach in the musical theatre canon) and the final moments are among the sweetest and most poignant in recent memory – which is enough, at any rate, to make someone at least a semi-fan of The Fantasticks.

And that’s not too much to ask of something that’s been around for a bazillion years

Keven Renken is Theatre Department Chairman at Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.

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