It seems extremely appropriate that Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is presenting The Fantasticks to close out their 50th Anniversary Season, as this famous show likewise just celebrated its 50th birthday. Both of these venerable institutions wear their age well, and this production is extremely well-performed and solidly mounted.
The Fantasticks opened Off-Broadway in May of 1960, and didn't close until January 2002, making it the longest running Off-Broadway musical in history. The show returned in 2006 with a revival production in New York as well. This musical fable tells the story of 16-year-old Luisa and 20-year-old Matt, neighbors who fall in love after their fathers erect a wall between their properties, and forbid them to talk to each other. In actuality, the fathers want the pair to fall in love and marry, but realize the children will resist an arranged marriage. They seek the help of the mysterious El Gallo to stage an abduction of Luisa so Matt can rescue her and create a valid justification for the kids being allowed to marry. The cruel realities of life create challenges for the young couple, however, and love's resiliency is tested.
The book for The Fantasticks by Tom Jones is charming, tenderhearted and fun. Though the story does have some slow spots (especially in act two) and relies a bit too much on unsophisticated humor, the tale is a universal one. The book uses numerous storytelling devices and has dialogue containing some wonderfully playful language.
Mr. Jones (lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) have provided the scores for a number of Broadway shows, such as 110 in the Shade and I Do! I Do! , but The Fantasticks remains their most famous piece. Songs such as "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "I Can See It" contain poetic words and pleasantly homespun melodies. The songs create the perfect mood for the show and are tuneful and memorable.
Playhouse has cast the show with a wonderful mix of Broadway veterans and local talent. Cincinnati native and seasoned Broadway pro Ron Bohmer (Ragtime, The Woman in White) possesses a rich baritone voice and a commanding stage presence as The Narrator/El Gallo. Margaret-Ellen Jeffreys skillfully conveys the emotional naïveté of teenager Luisa, and provides a winsome and delicate quality, along with strong vocals. As Matt, Jon-Michael Reese supplies the needed eagerness of youthful love in act one, as well as the sadness of a young man beaten down by the harshness of the world in act two. Bill Kux and Jerome Lucas Harmann demonstrate some vaudeville-style razzmatazz as the fathers. Local favorites Joneal Joplin (The Old Actor) and Dale Hodges (Mortimer) steal every scene in which they appear, and are splendid in these comic relief roles. Lily Blau supplies excellent support and theatrical flair as The Mute.
Director Ed Stern stages the show in the traditional manner, but with thoughtful details that make this production unique, and with the piece's whimsical tone intact. Stern's blocking of the actors in this oddly shaped thrust style theater space (in Playhouse's smaller Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre) smartly plays to all three sides equally. Janet Watson's musical staging is effective and appropriate for the show. Paul Shortt provides the traditional pieces such as a few poles, benches, trunks, a banner with the show title and a sun/mood cardboard cutout, along with a worn looking proscenium arch and curtain that frame the two talented musicians (Michael Sebastian on piano and Michelle Gwynne on harp). The mood enhancing lighting is by Kirk Bookman, and David Kay Mickelsen supplies handsome costumes in the typical style for the piece.
In addition to recognizing their 50th birthdays together, there's another apt reason for Playhouse's inclusion of The Fantasticks in this celebration season. The show's original director, Word Baker, was the Artistic Director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in the early 1970s, so mounting the show during this season is another way to honor the theatre's history. Their production of the musical boasts an exceptional cast and worthwhile direction and design. The Fantasticks runs through June 20, 2010. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888.