Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Fantasticks

The Vortex Theatre
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Mark's review of The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, Rob's review of The Book of Will and Dean's review of The Big Sleep of Philip Marlowe

Courtesy of The Vortex Theatre
Hard to believe, but the show that became the longest-running Off-Broadway musical in history got its start at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Music professor John Donald Robb wanted to do a show based on an Edmond Rostand play, The Romancers, but with a Southwest setting. The plot would be about neighboring ranchers, Anglo and Hispanic, and their children. He collaborated with Tom Jones (not the singer), who wrote the book and lyrics, and the musical was mounted at UNM in 1956 as Joy Comes to Deadhorse. Apparently it was a flop.

Jones moved on to rework the show with a composer he knew from college named Harvey Schmidt. They ditched the Southwest setting and the ethnicities, set it in nowhere in particular, and the rest is theater history. Given its small cast and relative ease of production, The Fantasticks has been staged in so many places—high schools, community theaters, all around the world—that it might well be the most frequently performed American musical ever.

The premise is that two fathers build a wall between their properties and pretend to feud in order to get their teenage kids to fall in love with each other. It worked for Romeo and Juliet, and it works here—until the kids find out that it was all a setup and, being teenagers, they rebel. Things look very different in the sunlight than they do in the moonlight.

The first act is just about perfect, the second act less so. Since, as one of the lyrics goes, "without a hurt the heart is hollow," the children have tribulations to go through before they can know what love truly is. The boy, Matt, leaves town to experience life and, improbably, ends up in Venice and Greece, being beaten up all along the way. (This scene is phantasmagorical and not to be taken literally, I know, but it doesn't work for me.) The girl, Luisa (the name is probably a holdover from the original UNM show), looks for adventure closer to home. I found it a little uncomfortable when she comes on to a man who, in this production, is old enough to be her grandfather, and he likewise is attracted to her. There's a happy ending, of course, but it feels forced and too abrupt.

Overall, though, the show is a charmer, and a couple of earworm songs, "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain," give it staying power. Just try to forget "Try to Remember"—it will take until September, and then it will come back into your head all over again. Lorri Oliver is the music director and has coached good singing out of everyone. The accompaniment consists only of piano (Mindy Sampson) and harp (Miriam Schilling), but it more than suffices. Debi Kierst, the director, has likewise pulled good work out of the entire cast and crew.

One of the reasons for the popularity of The Fantasticks is that it can be staged with almost nothing on the stage, a la Our Town. At The Vortex, though, there is a terrific set design by Ryan Jason Cook, including a couple of magical crates full of surprises. Props by Nina Dorrance, lighting by Nick Tapia, and costumes by Kip Caswell are all fine.

El Gallo (the Spanish for rooster, or to be more crude, cock) is the narrator of the show and a participant in the plot. He's played perfectly by William R. Stafford, who just naturally commands the stage. It's a pleasant surprise to see two old pros Peter Kierst and Jim Cady fill the roles of the two past-their-prime actors, Henry and Mortimer. Their performances prove that they aren't past their prime in real life at all. The same with Peter Parkin, who has the wordless role of the Mute.

The two fathers are played by Dave McDowell and, in a trouser role, Lorri Oliver. They both do good work, and the gender change didn't bother me at all. In fact, it makes a strange little bit of dialogue where the two fathers talk about spending the rest of their lives together seem less strange. The two young people, Sabina Lueras and Walker Sikkens, are stars in the making—good singing (although Walker could up the volume a bit) and good acting and just the right age for their roles. See them before they move on.

You might have seen The Fantasticks before, but you may have not seen a production as good as this one. Congratulations to Debi Kierst and everyone involved.

The Fantasticks, through August 5, 2018, at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque NM. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets $18 to $25. Information at