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Review: ‘The Fantasticks’ at The Eagle Theatre

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What’s not to like about The Fantasticks? It’s always been a modest, gentle show that goes down easy. The Eagle Theatre’s new production adds a few new wrinkles, putting its own stamp on this venerable musical without getting in the way of what’s made it work so well for over half a century.

Leonard C. Haas and Tim Rinehart. Photo by Chris Miller.

Leonard C. Haas and Tim Rinehart. Photo by Chris Miller.

The original Off-Broadway production, which opened in 1960 and ran for over four decades, was celebrated for its low-tech, low-cost approach – one that perfectly suited the simple, soothing life lessons that the show teaches. The story is a basic one: A boy and a girl, Matt and Luisa, fall in love, in defiance of their feuding fathers – not knowing that the “feud” is all for show, concocted by the fathers to encourage the kids to fall in love and give them something to fight for. A faked abduction (part of the fathers’ scheme) leads to a song called, fittingly, “Happy Ending.” But later the truth comes to light, and a real feud arises between the fathers – and between Matt and Luisa. Will everything really all end happily? Well, take a wild guess.

If The Fantasticks gets caught up in its own whimsy at times, and if some of its attitudes seem dated – especially regarding Luisa, who can come off as one-dimensional – there’s no doubting its sincerity. Tom Jones’ book and lyrics have a poetic expressiveness that allows the characters’ earnestness to shine through. That works best in songs like “Much More,” Luisa’s declaration of what she wants out of life; “They Were You,” Luisa and Matt’s song of romance and reconciliation; and the standard “Try to Remember,” which sums up the show’s attitude of wistful nostalgia. And Harvey Schmidt’s music gives everything an air of maturity and sophistication, especially in the jazzy chords and rhythms of “This Plum is Too Ripe” and the classical flourishes of “Metaphor.”

Director Ed Corsi’s production has a graceful, relaxed tone; some of the show’s more stylized theatrical elements, like the character known as “The Mute,” have been abandoned here. Ashleigh Poteat’s costumes favor casual dress over the show’s theatrical heritage; Matt wears a plaid shirt and jeans that owe more to grunge rock than commedia dell’arte. Chris Miller’s lighting gives numbers like “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” the requisite haziness. But the set design, credited to Miller and Corsi, is dominated by a pair of brick arches that block the audience’s view of Miller’s projections on the back wall. Jason Neri leads a three-piece combo from the rear of the stage; they’re fine, though the drums sometimes overwhelm the harp and keyboard.

Justin Mazzella and Morgan Billings Smith. Photo by Chris Miller.

Justin Mazzella and Morgan Billings Smith. Photo by Chris Miller.

As Luisa, Morgan Billings Smith is the definition of winsome, both in her delicate soprano and her disarming attitude. (Watch for the way she reacts to intense feelings by fidgeting with the hem of her skirt.) Justin Mazzella makes a sturdy partner for her, but Paul Weagraff and David Nikolas are a bit too campy as the fathers. (Caitlin Catanella does the choreography, and her vaudeville-style dance steps for Weagraff and Nikolas, in their duet numbers “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish,” are so undemanding they’re almost laughable.)

Tim Rinehart broods intensely as El Gallo, the dashing narrator-cum-outlaw who sets the abduction in motion; his warm tenor suits the songs perfectly. And Leonard C. Haas and Shamus Hunter McCarty, as El Gallo’s hapless sidekicks, give a nice air of self-mockery to the proceedings.

From its humble setting to its heart-tugging plot, from its restrained accompaniment to its contemplative characters, The Fantasticks is theatrical comfort food of the first order. And the Eagle’s production gets it right.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including intermission.

The ensemble. Photo by Chris Miller.

The ensemble. Photo by Chris Miller.

The Fantasticks plays through December 10, 2017 at The Eagle Theatre – 208 Vine Street, in Hammonton, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 704-5012, or purchase them online.

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