The Fantasticks. Book and lyrics by Tom Jones. Music by Harvey Schmidt. Directed by Matt MacArevey.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"This plum is to ripe."
Cleaning up the classics has become a major trend in the U.S.A. Take the old "N" word out of Mark Twain’s books, for example. Remove regional accents from plays about regional people. Destroy the stereotypes that for hundreds of years have easily identified people who actually fit the stereotypes. With this show, which opened originally in 1960 off-Broadway at the small Sullivan Street Theatre, it has been considered wrong to include the word "rape" in the book or music for many years now. The Rape Ballet has become the Abduction ballet and the lyrics for that number have become rather juvenile and asinine.
On stage at the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York (just off of Route 66, just west of Chatham) the abduction is being played out by a quintet of performers who make the abduction as non-threatening as it ever has been, thereby creating a hero who is anything but, even in the odd reality of his own perceptions if he was a honest as the attempt to remove a sense of danger, harm or "rape" has become. I had the privilege of attending the final dress rehearsal - and first performance for any audience at all - on Thursday night January 27 and this review is based on what I saw and what I believe you will see when you go.
Critical to this performance is the empty moment, the lengthy pause, the stage stark and still. Director Matt MacArevey has left much of the play unfilled with action or anything that would inform the moment left unexplored. There are places in the play where music alone rules and MacArevey just lets his actors stand where they are until the next vocal entrance occurs. I don’t know what he was thinking but I do know what he has achieved here. His people appear vacuous and incapable of action. I know that’s a mistake that he will fix by the time you see the play. At least I hope he will.
There is no choreographer credited, so the movement moments in the show are also allotted by the director. To have included someone with a sense of the stage, character visuals and musical theater would have been a help since it is just those empty moments that rob the show of its overall effectiveness.
That said, the director’s extra-Spartan set and simple costumes work beautifully, allowing the audience to imagine more than they are given. His concept of tableaux, however, is lacking in style and therefore lacking in effectiveness. He does have a lovely way of using mime and connecting the dots between his actors thoughts and actions.
The cast is a mixed bag as well, although this could easily change with the audience reactions that they will be hearing over the next three weeks. Strongest in the cast are Mike Meier as The Boy, Kerry Kaz as Henry, Nellie Rustick as The Girl and Paul Murphy as Mortimer. Best of them is Meier who has come a long way here since his appearance in Tintypes. He has a romantic strain that shows in his singing and acting and an appealing way of looking at the girl in his life. He moves well and in the second act torture sequence he is extremely sympathetic and simultaneously balletic.
Kaz brings age and a prolific use of gesture to the role of the old actor and he brings out the great humor in Jones’ creation. Seemingly letter-perfect in the role he gives an ease to his acting that almost makes it seem as though he is not acting at all, but actually living the role in front of us. Murphy, as his aging sidekick, displays a remarkable facility for looking like Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy) which came as something of a shock in the second act. He is funny and touching and his multiple deaths are glorious.
Nellie Rustick is charming, if a bit old, for Luisa, the girl next door. She has one of the best voices heard on this stage in a while and she is pretty believable as a sixteen year old. Her delivery of her lines is highly professional and quite convincing. She’s a keeper, friends at this Ghent Playhouse. Use her whenever you can.
The two fathers are played believably by Frank Lauria (good acting, bad singing) and Michael "Ace" Felt (good singing, okay acting). Lindsey Sikora is a perfectly wonderful Mute moving stealthily in and out of scenes to help out an actor with a needed prop or costume piece.
Only El Gallo truly disappointed me at this dress rehearsal performance. Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon is not bad in the part, he was just not good in it. His movements were amateurish, often keeping the beat of a song he was singing. His voice is not strong enough to make the upper register notes ring with clarity. He is not the romantic, Erroll Flynn-like figure one hopes for in this role. His acting is good, very credible and very honest. There are elements of the character he might aspire to, but they are not within his current grasp. Recent performances by Schane-Lydon have been lovely and clean and well-centered. I think his El Gallo could be among them, but it certainly wasn’t on the final rehearsal night, although he did get better toward the end of the show when he wooed The Girl and stole her property.
The set, utilitarian and ordinary as designed by the director, functioned wonderfully for the play. Joanne Maurer’s costumes were perfect for each actor’s portrayals.(El Gallo’s could have gone a bit more toward the slendering side, but...whatever.) The lighting designed by Ryan Cavanaugh left a lot to be desired in delineating the differences between night and day, reality and illusion.
No matter who does The Fantasticks there is always something about the show - perhaps it is the five hit songs - that makes it appealing and worthwhile. This edition is no exception. Young and lovely talent, the score, the core story are all worth your time and attention and the Ghent Playhouse seems to be an ideal size for small musical with a big heart.
The Fantasticks plays weekends at the Ghent Playhouse on Route 66 in NYS through February 13. Tickets are reasonable. For information or reservations call 518-392-6264 or go to their website at www.ghentplayhouse.org.