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'The Fantasticks' -- time-tested and still sweet

Musical TheaterBroadway TheaterMusicHoward Community College

"The Fantasticks" is a musical that has a fantastic history. This boy-meets-girl musical first opened in New York City in 1960 and had a 42-year-long off-Broadway run. A revival opened in New York in 2006 and is still running. By way of its ongoing vitality on a local level, the show currently is being given an enjoyable Rep Stage production.

This musical deliberately takes musical theater down to its basic parts. Composer Harvey Schmidt's score, which is best known for the song "Try to Remember," has the relatively small cast ruminating about romantic relationships through emotionally direct songs. The show's book and lyrics by Tom Jones likewise present the central romance in terms of near-fairy tale simplicity.

By way of staging, well, there isn't much. There are a ladder, chair, boxes, benches, and that's about it in terms of set design or props. Oh, yeah, there's also a cardboard moon that a character hangs by hand. If you want showbiz razzle-dazzle, this clearly ain't the show for you.

Instead, "The Fantasticks" operates on the more primal level of demonstrating how actors play roles, put on a show, and bring a basic girl-meets-boy story to life.

Although this compact musical's sweet-natured presentation of that story might strike some of us as borderline-cloying, there's no denying that generations of theatergoers have fallen in love with this show set under a cardboard moon.

One of the smartest attributes of the Rep Stage production is its straightforward approach to a musical that at heart is all about what's involved in putting on a show. Director Nancy Tarr Hart emphasizes the simplicity of the staging and the storytelling.

This means that audience members watch as the show takes shape. As costumes are pulled out of a trunk at the very beginning of the show, the characters put on their roles along with their outfits.

That sort of theatrical purity extends to musical director Ross Scott Rawlings, who simply and sensitively plays the piano, with accompaniment by Meghan Gwyer on the harp; and choreographer Ilona Kessell, who oversees energetic sword fights in such production numbers as "Abduction Ballet," but never lets that lively fight action overwhelm the love story.

Speaking of that love story, it is nicely portrayed by Matt (Benjamin Lurye), a 19-year-old fellow eager to meet 16-year-old Luisa (Stephanie Schmalzle), who is literally the girl next door.

Both actors are so earnest and enthusiastic in their performances that they somewhat individualize roles that are generic as written; their persuasive singing has highlights including their duet on "They Were You."

To the extent that there are complications in "The Fantasticks," there is a "Romeo and Juliet"-style obstacle presented by their seemingly feuding fathers. The young man's father, Hucklebee (Michael Bunce), and the young woman's father, Bellomy (Darren McDonnell), construct a wall between their properties. In keeping with the spirit of this show, the wall is mostly represented via mimed movement.

Some of this production's finest vocal moments come when these father figures sing duets in the songs "Never Say No" and "Plant a Radish."

Although the other supporting roles are brought to life by actors who know how to go for a laugh, the script itself tends to be forced with the characterizations and attempts at humor.

Especially problematic is a narrating figure known as El Gallo. Swaggering around in a black cape and hat, he comes across as a Spanish bandit with a dandy's sense of fashion. Maybe this character seemed boldly exotic and hilarious back in the more innocent early 1960s, but now he seems silly without being all that funny.

Fortunately, the actor playing El Gallo, Paul Edward Hope, leaps around and makes the most of the role. Although Hope seems tentative and needs to project more powerfully when he sings "Try to Remember" near the beginning of the first act, his reprise of this song is much better at the end of the second act.

Other supporting roles are played by Nigel Reed, Peter Boyer and Lynette Rathnam. They perform their roles with the theatrical flourishes that this show-about-a-show deserves.

The Rep Stage production of "The Fantasticks" runs through May 18 in Howard Community College's Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $33- $40, $15 for students with ID. Call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.BoxOffice@howardcc.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Musical TheaterBroadway TheaterMusicHoward Community College
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