Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Fantasticks
Guggenheim Entertainment, Inc.
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of She Loves Me


Stephen Guggenheim, Rick Haffner, Stewart Slater,
and Isai Centeno

Photo by C Noto Photography
In 1960, it was a little musical that broke many molds, especially compared to the beloved musicals by big Broadway writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Abbott, and Lerner and Loewe. It had little plot and became one of the earliest so-called "concept" musicals. There was a blending of reality and fantasy; a mixture of many stage forms such as vaudeville, pantomime, commedia dell'arte, Noh and ballet; and a dearth of scenic elements. Only one song from the show became firmly implanted in the Great American Songbook, and it was sung and done in the first few minutes. There was also controversy that plagued the musical for years, since it employed what appeared to be a Native American character who was stated to be "not really an Indian" and presented as white, and since the word "rape" was repeatedly used in dialogue and lyrics to refer to a planned abduction of a young teenage girl.

And yet the low-budget, quirky The Fantasticks that opened Off-Broadway on May 3, 1960, went on to become the world's longest-running musical (42 years with 17,162 performances), came back for an eleven-year revival (2006-2017), and currently still shows up on 250+ regional, community, and high school stages annually. Currently joining that annual line-up is the thoroughly delightful, big-smile-producing, and heartwarming production by San Jose's Guggenheim Entertainment, Inc. at its 3Below Theatres and Lounge. This version retains many of the no-frills aspects that have won fans through the years, but is a newer edition in which "abduction" replaces "rape" in its lyrics. 3Below's unique scenic, lighting, and directorial touches make this production well worth an outing—even for the person who feels "been there, done that years ago."

To the melodic, overture accompaniment of Tom Tomasello's piano and Ruthanne Martinez's harp—a duo who will continue to play Harvey Schmidt's score magnificently throughout the evening—the key characters of the play introduce themselves via a pantomime that sets up the boy-girl romance we are about to enjoy. Stepping forward next is the evening's Narrator and later mysterious and magical master guide of the story, El Gallo, as he too sets the stage and the mood singing the iconic "Try to Remember." 3Below perennial star, producer, and musical director Stephen Guggenheim once again brings to this stage his rich and deeply flowing vocals that melt into a convincing inducement for us to suspend our outside worries and lives as we "try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so, mellow" so that we "follow, follow, follow" him and the entire cast (all now surrounding him) into a story about love that "was an ember about to billow."

The budding love focus is between a girl and a boy who are next-door neighbors and who think their warring parents have built a wall between their houses in order to keep the two of them apart forever. Luisa is a sixteen-year-old who sees herself as a "princess" and as "special," praying, "Please, God, please, don't let me be normal." With a sweetly lyrical voice that employs the slightest reverberance for sustained-note emphasis, Annie Hunt's Luisa sings of doing "all the things I have dreamed about but never done before" in "Much More."

The boy who has his eyes set on her is Matt, a twenty-year-old who still has a heavy dose of teenage naivite and wonderment within him, telling us, "There is this girl ... she makes me young again." Jackson Glenn is the epitome of infatuation as he sighs at the sight of Luisa, bringing his own notable vocals that slide over hills and valleys of sweeping sound whenever he sings the word "love." In their initial duet, "Metaphors," Luisa and Matt detail exaggerated, melodramatic comparisons of their love for each other—the song being a fine example of the oft-funny, always clever lyrics of the musical's lyricist and book writer, Tom Jones.

The two young lovers woo, sneak a kiss, and plot their futures of how to thwart their parents as they each stand on overturned flower pots and look over a wall that is actually a stick held by a puckish character identified to us as The Mute. Isai Centeno never says or sings a word, but his constant presence on the stage as this Wall, as a background mirror of another's actions, or as a silent commentator through his smirks, raised eyebrows, and all-knowing looks is worth the price of the evening's ticket. He is a star who is never center stage but plays a major role in reflecting the story's ups and downs, its ironies and surprises, as well as both its comical and tender moments.

The so-called feuding parents—Luisa's father Bellomy and Matt's mother Hucklebee—are actually in cahoots to ensure the marriage knot is indeed tied between their offsprings. They are backyard gardeners—he an "aquamaniac" with watering pot always in hand and she a shears-toting "cliptomaniac." They hilariously explain why they are so secretive in their desire to be in-laws in "Never Say No," singing that kids do things like putting beans in their ears because parents have once told them "no."

Krista Wigle brings a personality to Hucklebee that is bubbly and bouncy in its exuberance for life. Her tendencies to snort and snicker are matched by a wide array of exaggerated movements that accompany her big and bold singing voice. Jackson Davis' Bellomy is a wonderful contrast as an oft-snarling skeptic who sings with more grounded intention and less flair than his neighbor but who still clearly has a devilish gleam in his eyes as he co-plots with her their children's match. When singing with Hucklebee, his Bellomy loses all inhibitions as the two could easily be on a vaudeville stage as one of the great singing and dancing comic duos of the past (with Jim Ambler's choreography smashingly employing the comical steps and styles of those times). Their second act "Plant a Radish" further continues their tribute to the antics, silly lyrics, and two-person line dancing of the famous 1920s-'50s comic duos.

The parents create a wild scheme to hire someone to abduct Luisa with the plan that the kidnapper will allow Matt to rescue her and thus win the heart the parents do not realize is already hers. They seek the help of a Spanish gallant, El Gallo ("the Rooster"), with our Narrator now assuming the role that is an enticing mixture of a good guy and villain with supernatural, hypnotic powers that he uses to teach lessons to the two young lovers by hurting them in order for them to grow wiser and stronger. Stephen Guggenheim is a master in portraying a character that is at one moment likeable and the next, diabolical. His own larger-than-life personality and voice joins with Hucklebee and Bellomy for a hilarious mimicking of Spanish-style dance as they bargain on the cost of his services in "It Depends on What You Pay."

Once a deal is struck, the musical's nod to commedia dell'arte emerges (literally) as an old, traveling Shakespeare actor named Henry (Steward Slater) and his sidekick who specializes in death scenes, Mortimer (Rick Haffner), enter the story via a trap door. All they need as necessary props they find in a big chest that sits center stage as they enact an "Abduction Ballet" that is quite like a live version of a 1950s Saturday morning, kids' cartoon. The animated sequence with its hyper-energetic scenes is just one example of several particularly clever, tongue-in-cheek devices in Scott Evans Guggenheim's direction backed by Jim Ambler's choreography.

Julie Engelbrecht's garden-rich elements of scenic design and props become the backdrop and weapons for the boisterous, stage-circling battle between the kidnappers and Matt, the hero-to-be, with mini-sized shovels, rakes, and hoes becoming their vicious swords. Her designed costumes are their own laugh-producing sources, from Bellomy's striped overalls of purple and orange set off by his matching bow tie to the worn but distinctive rags that Henry and Mortimer sport. Derek Duarte's lighting designs casts giant and distinct shadows of individual characters against a back sky of changing colors. As the two clowns of the evening, Henry and Mortimer reign supreme and will see more entrances and exits through the trap door as they become a big part of act two's fantasy, global-traveling nightmare, "Round and Round."

It would be difficult not to believe that Stephen Sondheim was both influenced and inspired by Jones and Schmidt's The Fantasticks. As in his later Into the Woods, this act one ends with a feeling that the two lovers and the two next-door families will live happily ever after; and like in Sunday in the Park with George, we are left with an act-closing family pose with arms linked, legs raised, and big smiles all around that is frozen like a photo to be treasured forever. But, as heard in Sunday in the Park, act two opens with a line similar to a Sondheim fan-favorite, "It's hot here," with that intermission-held pose no longer fun for the squirmy foursome. And, like Into the Woods, things are not working out quite as happily as either the to-be-weds or the chummy to-be-in-laws had planned. While there is not a Sondheim/Shakespeare journey into the woods to correct it all, there is some riotous world-wide travel for Matt and another abduction of sorts for Luisa that must occur before all is once again right—all under the control of El Gallo and with the aide of a certain pair of clowns.

If we can overlook his dark side and focus on the underlying twinkle and charm that are so well-displayed in his eyes and grin as given him by Stephen Guggenheim, El Gallo becomes a teacher not only for Matt and Luisa, but for us all. His message is that all of us would do well to remember those days of our more innocent and naive youth with all its optimism and hope. Further, he is reminding us that often we get what we want in life by sometimes enduring patiently a few hard knocks and bruises and by persevering to attain those visions of our youth. In the end, however, El Gallo, Tom Jones, director Scott Guggenheim, and this wonderfully talented cast and creative team are reminding us that, at its heart, The Fantasticks is truly a love story—one perfect for this time of year and a Valentine's gift from 3Below Theatres and Lounge to the entire Bay Area.

The Fantasticks runs through February 23, 2020, Thursdays through Sundays at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit 3belowtheaters.com.


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