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Monday, September 12, 2011

Theatre Review by Todd Zeigler: The Fantasticks at CenterStage




The longest-running musical in Broadway history has two key ingredients going for it: inexhaustible charm and a swell of substance that rises to catch you off guard. Written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones the show, which premiered in May 1960,  bears similarities to Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1986) on the boards at Clarksville Little Theatre. Currently enjoying a New York revival The Fantasticks is a leaner, lighter, more pop take on the question of what happens after “happily ever after.”

The story is simple: a young couple in love longs to be together. Their fathers plot to put them together by pretending to keep them apart (reverse psychology: the only way to reason with teenagers). The lovers unite, but find complacency and resentment before long, and only by going out into the world and facing its dangers do they mature and appreciate what they have left behind. The machinations of a charismatic bandit, “El Gallo,” guide both the lovers and the audience through this meditation on growing up.

CenterStage’s assemblage of talent for this tried-and-true tale does a fine job all around. As El Gallo, Jordan Price is a dashing ringmaster. Though not as bombastic as the role might allow, his muted, easygoing charm is immediately endearing – an absolutely essential quality for a character whose showcase song is a catalog of different types of rape. (“Rape” meaning “abduction” here, but still, one must admit it’s a charged word 50 years into this show’s life.)

Mera Kathryn Corlett is the embodiment of headstrong innocence as Luisa, the starry-eyed 16-year-old whose fantasies belie her pedestrian upbringing. Though he doesn’t quite pop off the stage the way Corlett does, Kyle Braun instills Matt, her true love, with a good heart and the insecurity of an All-American young man. His commitment to some of the intense moments of the second act’s brutal “Round and Round” is chill-inducing.

As Hucklebee and Bellomy, fathers of the young lovers, John Trueblood and Gary Crockett combine pleasing doses of fatherly affection and vaudeville showmanship. Though Crockett’s impish, futzing Bellomy is a bit busier, a bit more of a character and therefore a bit less grounded than his counterpart, they have great chemistry and avoid playing the same character “notes.”

Jason Cooper doesn’t miss a single opportunity for a laugh as Henry, the aging blowhard actor who recites Shakespeare at every opportunity while hobbling his way around the stage. Though his cockney accent is a bit more affected than perhaps necessary for the winking joke that is these two characters, David Beach’s comic timing is tick-tock perfect as Mortimer, the actor whose specialty is dying. (Are these two an homage to Stoppard? A question worth pondering…) Jacob Isaac rounds out the able cast as The Mute, the consciously theatrical show’s onstage props master and “set piece.” His facial work gives the character a personality beyond his utilitarian function here. He’s clearly having a great time, which subtly bolsters our own enjoyment.

A self-consciously theatrical show lends the designers a lot of opportunity, and they take it here. Director John Leffert did double duty as set designer, and his set pieces are simply gorgeous. The moon (a piece of wood hung on a nail) by which the fleeing lovers meet sparkles with glitter. Its flipside sun could have been a simple yellow circle, but instead a blend of myriad warm colors make it an eye-catching piece of art. It is little extras like these that broadcast the creators’ enthusiasm, and draw the same from the audience. Leffert’s costuming (triple duty!) is exciting, eye-pleasing and draws a distinction between the two families: brights and pastels for Hucklebee and Luisa, brown and green earth tones for Bellomy and Matt.

This is a production in which attention has been paid to every detail. It is a bit of a shame (and minor quibble) that the large auditorium of the Jewish Community Center puts the audience at such a distance from these little treats. A degree of intimacy is lost here, but the performers do their utmost to overcome the separation. That being said, you may want to choose a seat further removed as the facility’s limited sound system throws the sound to the middle and back of the room. The varying vocal strength of the performers (no fault of theirs, just a fact of life) also discourages sitting too close. The performances will be great no matter where you sit.

This perennial crowd-pleaser is a great choice for CenterStage and continues through September 18 in Linker Auditorium, 3600 Dutchman’s Lane, 40205. For tickets call 502.238.2739 or go to www.jccoflouisville.org/Centerstage.cfm.

Entire contents copyright 2011 by Todd Zeigler. All rights reserved.

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