'Fantasticks': Sex changes aside, still memorable

Try to remember "The Fantasticks" and you're likely to start humming its most famous song, "Try to Remember." You're also likely to recall that its boy-meets-girl plot is so simple and sweet that it verges on seeming like a fairy tale. That storybook quality is nicely conveyed by the production at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.

Although this musical's insistent cuteness may strike some of us as the theatrical equivalent of eating too much candy, there's no denying the show's enduring popularity.

Composed by Harvey Schmidt and with book and lyrics by Tom Jones, the original production of "The Fantasticks" opened in 1960 and then enjoyed a 42-year-long off-Broadway run. It still pops up in community and school productions often enough to prove that multiple generations remember it well.

The show's multi-generational appeal owes a lot to its simplicity. The protagonists are 20-year-old Matt (Eric Ritter) and 16-year-old Luisa (Sherry Benedek), who are next-door neighbors in a neighborhood that amounts to no more than the stage on which the action takes place. That's because "The Fantasticks" opens with costumes being pulled out of an old-fashioned trunk, and then the actors putting on their roles along with their outfits.

There's also a busybody narrator, El Gallo (Bart Dibicki), who supplies personal relationship updates with the regularity of an all-news channel.

Matt and Luisa are falling in love even though they can't see each other. Her father, Bellomy (Courtney Kalbacker), and his father, Hucklebee (Amanda Kay Boundy), have constructed a wall between their properties in what initially seems to be a manifestation of a "Romeo and Juliet"-style family feud.

The wall is represented here by what, for all intents and purposes, is a big shower curtain with a brick wall design on it. Again, this is the kind of musical play that relies on a playful simplicity.

Also by way of theatrical make-believe, both fathers are played by female actors. And the most overtly theatrical touch of all is a clown-outfitted character known as the Mute (Lydia West), who would be at home among Renaissance-era traveling players.

These broadly drawn characters come to at least two-dimensional life thanks to the extroverted cast under director Kristen Cooley. They sing, dance and run around with enough energy to make the show agreeably zip along.

Music director Michael Tan provides the keyboard support to ensure that such metaphorically blunt songs as "Plant a Radish," "Round and Round" and, yes, "Metaphor" are pleasing rather than just thuddingly obvious.

There's also enough romantic chemistry in the lead performances to make the boy-meets-girl story genuinely tug at the heart. Eric Ritter embodies Matt's sometimes bumbling attempts at a puppy love courtship and Sherry Benedek's Luisa is pretty and perky enough. Both sing reasonably well, although Benedek tends to be vocally inconsistent from one line to the next.

Others in the cast also tend to fare better with their acting than with their singing. Bart Dibicki brings the requisite swagger to the black-caped, Spanish stereotype known as El Gallo. He sings the all-important "Try to Remember" with emotional conviction, but he does not always consistently project his singing voice in other numbers.

Although the lead actors are able to carry this production, what's striking is the extent to which one of the supporting actors nearly steals the show. A young adult actor who is new to community theater, Joey Krastel, plays a comic sidekick character, Mortimer, who likes to spoof various Shakespeare roles. Krastel changes voices and skips about the stage with such amusing ease that his performance is, well, fantastic.

"The Fantasticks" runs through Dec. 18 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, at 817 St. Paul Street in Baltimore. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 general, $18 for senior citizens, $16 for students. Call 410-752-1225 or go to http://www.spotlighters.org.

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