Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Fantasticks
Cinnabar Theater
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of The Humans

Carolyn Bacon, Sergey Khalikulov, and Lukas Brandt
Photo by Victoria Von Thal
Putting a theatrical chestnut in a season is risky—will audiences be tired of it? Have too many already seen it? Does it still carry a message that will resonate with today? Is it enough to do it precisely because it's a chestnut? These are questions that rang in my head as I watched the excellent cast do a fine performance of The Fantasticks at Cinnabar Theater. So much to admire, in the energy and skill of the actors, the quality of the small orchestra, the clever set and staging—and yet, the play does indeed feel creaky and dated now, despite its illustrious past.

Tom Jones (no, not the singer, or Fielding's title character, but a different Jones of Broadway and Off-Broadway renown) teamed up with Harvey Schmidt to create a parable for their time—that would be 1960, when it first premiered. Jones wrote the book and lyrics for this small-cast musical, borrowing themes and ideas liberally from half a dozen other works. In many ways he captured the idealism and activism of the early '60s, with tropes of independence, anti-authority, and facing down the ills of the world with sober optimism. The show went on to run for over 40,000 performances, and has been performed the world over countless times.

Schmidt's music and the simple but poetic lyrics have made the songs staples in the cabaret canon, sung by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Kristin Chenoweth, and countless others. Hearing the songs again is like rediscovering familiar old friends. But even they can't save the script from feeling hackneyed.

Cinnabar's production has done its best to give the chestnut a new shine, with some recently authorized revised lyrics, innovative casting, deleting a character, and toning down the violence. It's perhaps more palatable to a contemporary audience, but arguably dilutes the play's central message. It's hard to reel from the world's cruelty when it's skillfully stylized behind gauzy curtains, and blood is a red silk scarf. Granted, this is built-in to the presentational style of the piece and has always been part of its charm. But it now contributes to the datedness, with the plot and characters almost too generic to feel universal anymore.

The fine cast is led by Sergey Khalikulov as El Gallo, or the Narrator. He exhibits just the right mix of upbeat commentary with world-weary resignation, given the god-like task of disillusioning the young lovers. One of those, Luisa, is given a beautiful, stellar rendition by Carolyn Bacon, whose angelic voice and superb acting are a true delight. Lucas Brandt, as her erstwhile partner Matt, does well with the transition from bright-eyed youth to beaten-down hero.

In what has become acceptable alternative casting, Krista Wigle plays Hucklebee, now re-imagined as a mother rather than father. She and Michael Van Why as Bellomy make an engaging duo, with first-rate vocals and expert comic skills. Turning them into a happy couple creates a decidedly different choice however, reminiscent of Shakespearean comedy.

James Pelican delivers a tour de force performance as Henry the Old Actor, wheedling and cajoling and terrifically funny throughout. He does have his winsome moments, but has us in stitches with his fractured Shakespeare and artful posing. His "troupe," namely Mortimer, is amply fulfilled by Brandon Wilson, whose wide-eyed naivety is matched by his skillful dying. These two threaten to steal the show from the more serious themes, and have so much infectious fun providing memorable moments of hilarity. Wilson also fills in for the missing character of The Mute; a directorial choice to eliminate a character seen as unnecessary, but there have been stagings where The Mute helps carry the play's overall message.

Stage director Elly Lichenstein and music director Mary Chun construct an engaging production, with a versatile set by Ronald Krempetz and nimble, lovely lighting by Wayne Hovey. Lisa Eldredge's costume design deserves mention for perfect matchup with characters, perhaps most happily so with the clowns, Henry and Mortimer.

Is it possible for such an admirable production to overcome the play's datedness? Are we moved by its message in spite of the script feeling creaky? The performances are certainly wonderful. If you've never seen the musical, then see it and decide for yourself. If you've seen it before and loved it, this is a staging worthy of a re-visit.

The Fantasticks, through June 24, 2018, at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma CA. Tickets $15.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 707-763-8920