Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The FantasticksfreeFall Theatre
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's reviews of Laura Benanti at Sarasota Opera and Anne of Green Gables


Cameron Kubly, Roxanne Faye, Nick Hoop,
and Patrick Ryan Sullivan

Photo by Photo Ninja
I love Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks, although I haven't seen it in at least 25 years. So when freeFall Theatre announced it for the opening of their 2018-2019 season, I got excited. What could be better than reacquainting with an old friend? Then I began to worry, because I am a purist and the more I thought about it, the more I suspected that Eric Davis might not respect original director Word Baker's iconic vision. I prepared myself to hate a serious re-imagining of this just about perfect musical.

Eric Davis has done a balancing act with The Fantasticks, respecting its inherent qualities of ritualism and simplicity while bringing his usual incisive eye to it. Bottom line, he has made this musical fresh again, his vision adding depth. I don't want to spoil what needs to be experienced, so I will only cite one example. As we enter the darker world of the second act, the characters remove their costumes that make everything pretty earlier. The new drab costuming adds layers to the darker music and story. It is a brilliant touch, one among many. Davis is quite simply the hero of this production.

Patrick Ryan Sullivan leads the cast as El Gallo. He has the swagger, the darkness, and most of the danger required of our narrator. I would like a little more richness in the voice, but, seriously, Jerry Orbach who created the role and went on to major stardom on Broadway is a tough act to follow when it is his voice we hear on the classic cast album. Matt and Luisa have always proven to be more tricky casting. Jones and his late writing partner Harvey Schmidt for some time remained involved with the Off-Broadway production (which ran from 1960-2002, then 2006-2017) and other important touring versions, and they seemed to gravitate toward youthful casting. A 1993 recording, which features a cast assembled for a lengthy tour of Japan, is ruined for me by how dull both of these characters are. Davis avoids this trap. Grace Choi is quite saucy for a sixteen-year-old, and Cameron Kubly offers a Matt with sex appeal, right on the verge of leaving boyhood behind to become a man. Dull these two are not.

The roles of the fathers, Bellomy (hers) and Hucklebee (hers), are almost fool proof. They have two showstopping vaudeville turns and some great comic moments. Here, however, they are asked to also play the two piano parts that make up most of the orchestration (a harp, beautifully played by Meredith Coffman, is the rest). Paul Helm as Bellomy and Michael Ursua as Hucklebee do a superb job, so the musical end of things is well served as they bounce among three pianos for added merriment. Mr. Helm proves that his great turn as Officer Moscowicz in last summer's Murder for Two in Sarasota was no fluke. Roxanne Fay, already proven to be versatile (Nurse Ratched, Dr. Emma Brookner, and Fraulein Schneider at this theater alone), almost steals the show as the old, previously Shakespearean actor Henry. Daniel Schwab as his sidekick Mortimer is at his most effective. Nick Hoop is a nice, gentle presence as The Mute.

Eric Davis and his production are well served by David Covach's costume designs and Tom Hansen's set and lighting design.

Michael Raabe is musical director (though Mr. Helm seems to clearly be conducting with head gestures), always a welcome presence at any freeFall performance where I always love watching how animated he is leading from the piano.

The Fantasticks is one of my favorite musicals and freeFall gives it a production that is fresh and new and exciting. Don't miss it.

The Fantasticks, through October 21, 2018, at 6099 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg FL. For ticket and performance information, visit www.freefalltheatre.com.

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Luisa: Grace Choi*
Harpist: Meredith Coffman
Henry: Roxanne Fay*
bellomy & Piano: Paul Helm*
The Mute: Nick Hoop
Matt: Cameron Kubly
Mortimer: Daniel Schwab*
Ell Gallo & Guitar: Patrick Ryan Sullivan*
Hucklebee & Piano: Michael Ursua*
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association


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