Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Fantasticks is Fantastic

Also see Richard's review of Big River

(Clockwise from top) Shaye Troha,
Bill English, Louis Parnell,
Graham Cowley, Mark Farrell,
Katy Stephen, Joe Bellan
and Brian Scott

The San Francisco Playhouse is presenting Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's classic musical The Fantasticks as the final production in their inaugural season. This is an irrepressible production with a top rate cast of singers and actors. The musical is a timeless fable of love that is both nostalgic and universal.

I first saw this enduring classic back in the summer of 1960 at the Sullivan Playhouse in New York with a very young Jerry Orbach playing El Gallo. Kenneth Nelson of Boys In the Band was the young hero Matt and Rita Gardner played the heroine Luisa. Over the years, I saw the production in New York with such actors as F. Murray Abraham playing the father Hucklebee and Judy Blazer playing Luisa. A host of well known stars have played in productions throughout the world including Liza Minnelli, Glenn Close, Richard Chamberlain and Ricardo Montalban.

The Fantasticks opened at the Sullivan Playhouse on May 3, 1960 and closed on January 13, 2002. It is the longest running Off Broadway musical in history. It had 17,162 performances at the Sullivan Playhouse. There were 44 investors and they have received a 19,465% return on a $16,500 total investment. The musical has played in every state, in more than 11,103 U.S. productions in over 2000 cities and towns. Internationally, more than 700 productions have been staged in 67 nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. There have been over 200 productions in Canada alone. San Francisco saw its last production 25 years ago when it played at the Little Fox Theatre.

The Fantasticks' charm is undeniable with its sweet and wistful story about Matt (Mark Farrell) and Luisa (Katy Stephan) who fall in love when their fathers (Louis Parnell and Brian Scott) build a wall between their properties, forbidding the young lovers to talk to each other. They secretly want the two kids to fall in love and marry but know the couple will resist an arranged marriage. They enlist the help of the proprietor of a traveling carnival, the mysterious El Gallo (Bill English), to end their faux feud.

El Gallo pretends to kidnap Luisa with the help of his traveling troupe which includes an elderly Shakespearean actor (Graham Cowley) and his funny sidekick Mortimer (Joe Bellan). It seems everyone will live happily ever after at the end of act one. However, that is not the case, for many things happen in the second act as the young lovers go their separate ways into the outside world. After some harsh realism they learn a more realistic understanding of love.

Many of the Schmidt and Jones songs have become standard hits, such as "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "They Were You." This is one of the most memorable scores ever produced for the stage. Through inventive staging, Dianna Shuster has captured the lyrical, fable-like mood of the piece with vocal credentials that do justice to the music.

Bill English, who usually directs productions at the Playhouse, is great as the mysterious El Gallo. This is his first acting role in several years, and he has a dashing presence in the role of the narrator/villain. He plays the role as very lighthearted and he is first rate in his rendition of the classic "Try to Remember." He also has good singing chops in "It Depends On What You Pay."

Mark Farrell (winner of many Dean Goodman awards plus a BATCC nomination for Wonderful Town) portrays Matt to inexperienced perfection and gives a smooth performance as the naïve young man. He has an engaging voice when singing the haunting beauty of "Metaphor," "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "They Were You," all sung in duet with Kathy Stephan. Ms. Stephan, a Los Angeles actress, has a thrilling voice that is bell clear. Her high C's in "I Can See It" are wonderful.

Louis Parnell and Brian Scott portray the fathers as humorous curmudgeonly folks. They are excellent in the ode to parenthood, "Plant a Radish," and display some great footwork. Joe Bellan and Graham Cowley nearly steal the show with their vaudeville antics as the two out of work thespians. Henry, as played by Crowley, is a wonderful Shakespearean ham who just can't seem to get the right lines of the Bard's plays. Bellan really hams it up like an old time burlesque comedian. Playing against each other, they bring down the house. Rounding out the cast is Shaye Troha as The Mute and The Wall. She is a remarkable actress who moves gracefully in every scene.

Bill English also designed the set, which is a work of art. Basic materials, such as boxes, are used; chairs and other items are hung from the rafters and are used as needed. The set is basically the same as the Sullivan Playhouse set with the small stage in the center. John Florencio plays a mean piano, and watching this talented young pianist is part of the fun of the show. He is amazing when tinkling the ivories.

The Fantasticks runs through July 31st at the SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or go to or

The Playhouse will open their second season with Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour which opens on September 17th.

Photo: Adam Buck

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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