Try to remember, four months before September when Rep Stage mounted The Fantasticks to close their season. A classic love fable springs to mind; the Music by Harvey Schmidt, the Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones. A boy, a girl, two fathers, a moon, and a wall – what more could a love story need? Directed by Nancy Tarr Hart with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, there are simple pleasures to be found in this timeless classic; a message of love and hope, renewal and discovery.
With no set to speak of, the charm of The Fantasticks comes from its campy but simplistic ‘put-on’ nature. As mentioned near the beginning of the show, with simply the main characters and their guises, everything else needed to set the scene will come from the box— including scene stealing actors who add vivacious humor to the show as it progresses.
Costume Designer Denise Umland decorates the players with basic symbolic concepts. The young ingénues are draped in innocent white lace to reflect their naivette and lack of understanding about the world. Umland gives the father’s a much more quirky look in their mismatched plaid and stripes, complete with hats that match their personalities. Patchwork hilarity is reserved for the clowns that emerge as players from the trunk, and a ravishingly delightfully red and black cloak ensemble is saved for the dashing El Gallo.
A Mute (Lynette Rathnam) serves mainly as the wall. At times Rathnam is a humorous addition to the scenes, her role as ‘wall’ adding a layer of sophisticated humor to the production. But at other times Hart’s inclusion of the silent character as a ‘guiding force’ seems out of place and superfluous. Using her to control the elements during the moments the young lovers are in the woods fall on the side of cute and purposeful, while the awkward interactions she subtly shares with the Narrator seem confusing.
Hart uses Rathnam throughout the piece to throw various brightly colored post-it notes all about the stage. This repetitive action at times serves no purpose whatsoever and again feels unnecessary. Though there are times, when they shown to imitate blood and fire or water where they fit the show perfectly, it is the random sprinkling of these colorful bits as Rathnam leaps about the stage that cause confusion.
Playing as The Narrator/El Gallo, Paul Edward Hope leaves a bit more to be desired from his singing talents. His voice is not overly powerful and unfortunately when singing and dashing about the stage during “It Depends on What You Pay” he becomes winded and many of the clever lines constructed into that number by Tom Jones are lost. Hope’s lyrics are again lost when singing against either of the ingénues in “Round and Round” and “I Can See It.” While his singing voice may not be up to par, his cheeky acting and charming disposition craft the character in the enigmatic and debonair sense that is expected of a brigand turned narrator.
With two stunning melodious voices Matt (Benjamin Lurye) and Luisa (Stephanie Schmalzle) are delicate youths with whom fate toys, dangling them before the world and each other without a care. Schmalzle embodies a dippy ducky sort of ignorance; excitable with fantastical delusions that leap from her body in a burst of giddiness, echoed in her bright and expressive eyes. Lurye shares a similar enthusiasm, while hers is for an unknown world, his is solely for her. The pair brings a ripe chemistry between them that shifts and declines and resurges once more as the play makes its complete circuit.
Lurye’s voice for numbers like “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “Beyond That Road” are laced liberally with an emotional connection to the story he’s telling, particularly the lovely expressions of sentimental feelings toward Luisa during their duet in the woods. The versatility that Lurye provides in the character not only in his singing voice but in his ability to act the character’s arch through a transformation, is impressive; a believable and earnest portrayal in a musical that often gets discredited as hokey. Schmalzle’s voice is nothing less than operatic in its grace and beauty, displaying a dulcet and charming soprano range during her wordless notes of “Round and Round.” The pair blend brilliant harmonies together and are perfectly suited for their roles.
Campy comedy comes raging forth in this touchy lovey-dovey musical in the format of two fathers, Hucklebee (Michael Bunce) and Bellomy (Darren McDonnell). Dressed like something out of camptown races, this comic duo plays exceptionally well off one another, understanding the nuances of their own characters and each others. Bunce, the pruning maniac, and McDonnell the over-waterer, the pair make for some terrific moments of hilarious hyjinx. “Bellomy ” and “Plant a Radish” are two of their duets that are a smashing good time, complete with ridiculously campy little dances, actuating their comic potential to the maximum. The duo carries the comedy of “It Depends on What You Pay” with Bunce’s strong vocals and McDonnell’s emotive facial expressions. Even when Bunce and McDonnell go at one another during “This Plum is Too Ripe” their soured amiable nature turns comic; biting tensions rise on bitter tongues, all of which creates prime moments of chuckles for those watching.
The show is all but stolen by the two kings of comedy, surpassing even Hucklebee and Bellomy and their garden-variety shenanigans, as Henry (Nigel Reed) and Mortimer (Peter Boyer) take to the stage. Climbing out of the prop box as if they were little more than decorative additions to the show, Reed and Boyer share a chemistry similar to that of Bunce and McDonnell, playing exceptionally well off one another. From the moment Reed takes the stage by struggling to climb out of the box, the laughs are rolling. His Shakespearean recitations are a scream and are topped only by the hysterically exaggerated death scenes performed by Boyer. Embodying the notion of having lost his marbles, Reed brings a sincerely goofy presence to this has-been actor character, a rolling good time for all if he can just stay up on his feet!
Rep Stage’s production is indeed ‘fantastic.’ Follow, follow, follow, the advice at the bottom of this review and get your tickets soon as it is a limited engagement run.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
The Fantasticks plays through May 18, 2014 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Rep Stage a Howard Community College-10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.