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Chicago by Charles Eichler

The Fantasticks

Also see Charles' recent review of Fahrenheit 451

In this day and age when chandeliers come crashing from the ceiling (Phantom of the Opera), ballrooms descend from the upper space (Sunset Boulevard ) and helicopters arrive on the actual stage set (Miss Saigon), it's nice to see a stage show that is rooted in what musical comedy is all about ... a story, familiar songs, simple choreography and sheer sentimentality that an audience can identify with. These are all the ingredients that the Pegasus Players' production of Fantasticks are now providing at the O'Rourke Center for the Performing Arts, Truman College in Chicago. This is indeed a production that sparkles in every way.

I am new to Pegasus Players this year, although I have heard wonderful things about the productions that are done there. Beginning in 1978, Pegasus Theatre moved from a 90-seat house to a 250-seat facility at O'Rourke College. The theatre is immaculate, the audience is dignified and it is indeed a pleasure to attend a production there. Pegasus still exists as an independent autonomous theatre company committed to providing "a quality arts experience for those who would normally be denied it, such as inner-city school students and low-income senior citizens."

The results, such as The Fantasticks, are marvelous. Here is a show that opened Off-Broadway in May, 1960, and only ended its historic 42-year run last January after 17,162 performances, making it the longest running production in the history of American theatre and the longest running musical in the world. Under the direction of James Harms and Assistant Director/Choreography by Rudy Hogenmiller (both well-loved Chicago artists), this is a show that focuses on a universal theme: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy and girl reunite in a sensitive song that brings tears to the eyes ("They Were You"). Numerous side complications prevail, including a spat between their fathers, but the end result is that everything is set in harmony. The play, the music, the choreography all enhance this effect.

I saw the original production back in 1971, and subsequently a performance at the Arlington Park Theatre with Richard Chamberlain (another of our theatres gone and another performance worth cherishing); finally I saw the touring version with Robert Goulet as El Gallo. None of them captured the innocence, the rapture and the joy of this production of The Fantasticks at Pegasus Players.

From the opening strains of "Try to Remember" sung by Dan Zakaija and the initial exposition, you can tell that this is a straightforward production, the way that was intended by composer/lyricst team Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. This production has a focus and tries to avoid extraneous ways to achieve it. Although it would be suited to a more intimate theatrical environment (this is a show that needs to bring the performers next to the audience), each musical number serves a purpose and is streamlined to bring that into view.

Ben Cohen as Matt the young boy it outstanding. With the smile and radiance of a Joel Grey in his early years, Cohen is indeed destined to do even better things. He floats, he flies, he is in firm grip of the role. Dan Zakarija as El Gallo has a gorgeous voice, but he needs more of a "biting" look as El Gallo, because as played, he is just too cherubic. Marci Medwed, though well-voiced, is too old to play Luisa.

If you want to enjoy an actor who really works, be sure to see Bob Pries as Hucklebee. Every gesture and choice of facial movement/character movement is simply a joy. Finally, I must mention Ron Geronimo, who is simply articulate as The Muse. His character's intrusions are subtle yet well-choreographed.

What makes this show so simplistic are the choices that have been made by the director - from the minimalistic props (scraps of colored paper to represent rain/snow, etc.) to the beautiful orchestrations provided by Cynthia Stevens (Musical Director/Piano) and Jeannette Burek (Harpist).

A glorious evening!

The Fantasticks will be playing at the O'Rourke Center, 1145 W. Wilson Avenue in Chicago until October 20th then travelling to Egypt. In Chicago, call (773)-878-9761 for more information.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- Charles



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