Review: The Fantastics of the City Theater – Arts
The City Theater Co. The Fantastic (Photo by Andy Berkovsky)
“The Fantastic … pulls you in, settles a little sluggishly, wakes you up and averages a little less than satisfactory,” Walter Kerr concluded in his New York Herald column review following the show’s 1960 premiere off Broadway. “Maybe,” Brooks Atkinson said in The New York Times“[it] is by nature the kind of thing that loses magic the longer it lasts.”
Of course, after watching grand and glamorous musicals like my lovely lady, The music manand Gypsy (all on Broadway at the time), Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s minimalist, melancholic, commedia dell’arte-style parable about two neighboring parents tricking their children into falling in love with each other must have felt disappointing to reviews. And just listening to piano and harp rather than a usually packed orchestra probably didn’t help.
But audiences understood the show’s subtle sophistication — the complexity of the seemingly commonplace characters, the powerful lyrics tucked into hummable songs, and the rhyming verses embedded in the prose. And so, The Fantastic became the longest-running musical since the art form’s inception. Its original staging logged 17,162 performances and the 2006 revival added 4,390 more. The Fantastic has also become a fixture in regional, community and secondary production calendars where all too often productions fail to find that subtle sophistication and become rather valuable affairs. Worse still, too many people are trying to make the show bigger and more glamorous so that it appeals to younger audiences who might otherwise struggle to “try to remember the kind of September/when life was slow and oh, so sweet.”
I speak from experience, having witnessed the mother of all missteps at the Reprise Theater Co. in Los Angeles in 2009, where director Jason Alexander (yes, that Jason Alexander) lost the show’s carefully honed fantasy under the foam from the sitcom. Not so with City Theater Co.’s delightful staging under respectful direction of Matt Shead, which embraces the show’s romanticism and allows the work to whisper to the audience, as intended, rather than us. shout at.
Artistic director Andy Berkovsky’s stage design is traditionally austere, with the theatre’s intimate performance space outfitted with a small stage and curtain, two wooden boxes, a prop chest, musical director Karl Logue on piano and Vincent Pierce on harp. The sets are moved with grace by Jane Schwartz who, in the role of the Mute, facilitates the narration in silence. As the show’s choreographer, she also does a wonderful job of getting the actors to move gracefully during the show’s many musical numbers.
Like starry-eyed lovers Luisa and Matt, Jacob Bernelle and Mel Elkins are spellbinding. They give beautiful voice to our youthful, innocent longings through “Much More” and “Metaphor,” and in Act II they do the same for our dream-stifling disappointments in “This Plum Is Too Ripe.” With Elkins being the only soprano in the piece, the many intricate harmonies built into Schmidt’s score would certainly benefit from having it projected from the back of the house rather than into the ears of his fellow actors.
Kirk Kelso and Bryan Headrick are charming as fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy, respectively, and their song “Never Say No” is a highlight of an evening full of them. But Headrick’s tendency to do too much, too often, comes very close to turning his character into a caricature and his portrayal into a parody.
Greg Allen is a superb El Gallo, the villain hired by the fathers to abduct Luisa in order to set up the rescue cementing Matt’s relationship. El Gallo frequently breaks the fourth wall to offer commentary, philosophy and foreshadowing: Allen does so with immense sincerity and, when the narrative turns to song, with charming baritone. El Gallo, in turn, hires a former ham actor named Henry (played to perfection by veteran comedian Michael Harlan) and his death-scene specialist sidekick, Mortimer (played by a terrific Eli Mendenhall), to help set the stage. ‘removal.
Not too grand and not too precious, this production of The Fantastic is just.
Trinity Street Theater, 901 Trinity, 512/470-1100
Until September 18