‘The Fantasticks’ Is… Fantastic

Strong cast, good voices, fresh take on an old classic by In Tandem Theatre.

By - Apr 30th, 2018 03:02 pm
Robert Spencer (Henry), Keegan Siebken (Matt), Austin Dorman (Mortimer), and Susan Wiedmeyer (Luisa). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Robert Spencer (Henry), Keegan Siebken (Matt), Austin Dorman (Mortimer), and Susan Wiedmeyer (Luisa). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Try to remember… how many times you have seen “The Fantasticks”? It’s a fair question for theater patrons about a musical that dates back to 1960, was off-Broadway’s longest running show (42 years!), showcased many future stars and has been a staple of TV, stage and community theaters. You’d think that old warhorse wouldn’t have any surprises left, just as you might think that the doddering Shakespearean actor shtick that is one of its comic centerpieces is tired and worn out.

And that is precisely why we are delighted by In Tandem Theatre’s thoroughly enjoyable revisit through May 20 (in a Tenth St. Theater as intimate as where the original ran in the long gone Sullivan Street Playhouse in New York City). For instance, in the first act as the old actor, Robert Spencer mines more laughs than many a past occupier of the role has, surprising us at how he mangles Shakespeare and overplays his stentorian voice with immaculate comic timing.

That is the true pleasure of this production under managing director Jane Flieller (whose husband Chris is the company’s artistic director and here romps impishly as one of the radish-planting fathers). The material is being treated as if minted yesterday and the main actors seem freshly invested in experiencing life in all its passions and disappointments.

Librettist Tom Jones, who is 90, and composer Harvey Schmidt, who died earlier this year, wrote other musicals but this one is clearly the most famous, based on a forgotten 19th century Rostand play but still a pinnacle of challenge and achievement for theater performers. Which may be one reason why In Tandem attracted such a capable cast — who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?

The set by Lisa Schlenker reflects the simplicity (and surprises) hidden within old trunks, ladder and scooting boxes, aided slyly by Rick Graham’s lights. The costumes of Kathy Smith range from Midwest gardening duds to flowing Spanish capes. The seeming casualness of it all (actors warm up in front of the audience) hides the sophisticated capers ahead.

Familiar dialogue and rhymes about young lovers being manipulated by parents – and fateful reversals orchestrated by hired bandit El Gallo – are played with deft new punctuations. The music is surely well-known – even down to Mary Keppeler’s harp flourishes — but the poetry and musical values are given full weight. Seldom have “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You” landed with such step-by-step feeling.

Who doesn’t know “Try to Remember”? How many parents have sung “Plant a Radish” or unknowingly quoted “Never Say No” to their misbehaving kids? If they did, though, it was probably without the buck-and-wing vaudevillian enthusiasm displayed by Flieller and the other far taller father, Matt Daniels, who musically embraces a lower register and in comedy registers higher, being given the larger laughs.

The decision has been made throughout to cast singers who can act, not celebrities who can pretend to be singers, as so often has happened in the past. Andrew Varela retains a glimmer of the menace shown last season as Sweeney Todd, but it’s right for the role once he adds charm and mischief plus fine baritone singing to El Gallo. The character’s command over the play’s action is written in, but the actor does far more in steering our reactions.

As Luisa, the sighing 16 year old, Susan Wiedmeyer has put aside her recent Offenbach outing at the Skylight but not her vocal power, to which she adds some fetching swoons and acting petulance. Her body language and her voice are so easy with the demanding role that it was almost unfair to put Keegan Siebken opposite her as the young swain – but wait! Sure enough, he provides fuller acting and singing warmth as he warms up, holding his own. Except both he and Varela struggle for the right vocal balance in “I Can See It.”

Mary McLellan says not a word but leads us throughout with a smiling manner and skilled interference as the mute pretending to be the stage manager.

Things do get a bit bumpier when the cast cavorts around in circles for the madcap action scenes in both acts, imitating sword fights, beatings and life’s savageries, which work far better when suggested behind scrim rather than around onstage poles.

The original musical, even into stagings into the 1990s, used an entire song that intended the traditional use of “rape” as a term for abduction, much like Alexander Pope parodied in a poem still taught in English classes, “The Rape of the Lock.”

But rape in this era has completely lost that original amused meaning. So this production, like other modernized ones, substitutes abduction, chase, masquerade and raid as euphemisms to rhyme within the original “Depends on What You Pay.” The lyrics are delivered with brisker humor than normal and only patrons with long memories will know why. But the speed sort of fits. Neither the eye nor ear feels any lag of skilled movement around the stage as we succumb to “The Fantasticks.”

The Fantasticks Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here and here.

2 thoughts on “Theater: ‘The Fantasticks’ Is… Fantastic”

  1. Chrsitina Zawadiwsky says:

    I saw In Tandem’s The Fantasticks recently (having never seen it before). I wanted to know what went on in my partner’s mind, who saw it in college long ago and raved about it (as he also did after seeing Jason Robards in the film A Thousand Clowns). To me, outside of the plot line, it seems to be about differences between the old and the young – the old have power but the young have hope and energy. In Tandem’s version made you feel interested and lively throughout, especially while laughing every few moments!

  2. mike drew says:

    Dom Noth, whom I reviewed when he shone as a Marquette drama undergrad, lost critics jobs to at The Journal and then considered my best editor there, is the critic I wait to read today. I’d have run, not walked, to The Fantasticks anyway. But, yet again, Dom’s wisdom, taste and knowledge of cultural lore will enrich the experience.

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