Quintessence Theatre begins the holiday season with a sparkling production of "The Fantasticks."
Quintessence Theatre begins the holiday season with a sparkling production of "The Fantasticks" (music by Harvey Schmidt, book and lyrics by Tom Jones). Under director Megan Bellwoar, the show is traditionalist. Bellwoar stays true to book and lyrics even as she respects the way the musical has been produced in prior decades.
The dramatic premise is fantastical. Two neighbors want their children to marry, so they build a wall between their backyards, believing children are contrarian and will pursue whatever is denied them. Ironically, it works because Luisa and Matt fall in love. Their estrangement and re-engagement is the core of the story, but often feels secondary to a magical mayhem.
Director Bellwoar uses many production techniques of previous "Fantasticks" stagings. Hidden from view, we hear a two-piece orchestra, with pianist Chris Ertelt as Music Director and Mia Venezia as harpist. Bellwoar takes her cue from composer Harvey Schmidt, who downsized the big Broadway orchestra for his score.
Likewise, the set is minimal, relying on the props of Curtis Coyote. The simple pole of The Mute (Karen Getz) to signify the wall invites the audience to use their imagination. (Getz is also the choreographer, but the show's madcap movement feels so spontaneous many must pitch in.)
The musical counts on a strong Narrator to help carry the show. Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton fills the bill. With his rich baritone, Toniazzo-Naughton delivers the show's hit song, "Try To Remember". He breaks the fourth wall to comment and foreshadow. Virile and commanding as El Gallo the Bandit, he also competes with the show's comics in his burlesque death scene.
The "Thrust Stage" of Set Designer Meghan Jones promotes actor-audience intimacy. Flowing white sheets seal off the stage front. The sheets turn into scrims when, with the help of Lily Fossner's lighting, El Gallo introduces Luisa to the scary dangers of the outside world. When phantasmagorical visions do not accord with Luisa's naivete she dons a lorgnette mask to deflect them from sight.
"The Fantasticks" is rooted in theatrical history. Loosely based on "The Romancers" by Edmond Rostand, it playfully combines the "star-crossed romance" of "Romeo and Juliet" with the sensibility of Commedia Dell'Arte. Thornton Wilder's innovative "Our Town" inspired Jones's Narrator character.
"Fantasticks" premiered Off-Broadway in 1960 and played continuously for an astounding 42 years, the longest-running American musical in history. It was revived on Broadway in 2006 and is now a staple of Equity and Community theaters across the country.
"The Fantasticks" has a "happy ending", but youthful lovers Matt and Luisa are sobered. As in Shakespeare's comedies, the ecstatic joy of infatuation is shown to be a delusion, flourishing in the moonlight of Act 1 only to wilt when the sun comes up.
The haunting nostalgia of "Try to Remember", spells out the show's argument: Unworldly happiness is an unreachable dream. The audacious, eye-catching costume of Ariel Wang accents radical individuality, suggesting all players are locked into private worlds.
At its best the Quintessence production is dream-like. Narrator-Bandit wakes you up from time to time, but you soon fall back into reverie. Perfect for the Holiday Season, very young people are perhaps best able to inhabit its fantastical enchantments.
Quintessence Theatre is located at 7135 Germantown Ave. The Fantasticks will run through 31 December. Tickets available at 215-987-4450 or www.quintessencetheatre.org