Reviews

'The Fantasticks'

The Princeton Festival presents the world's longest-running musical

By Anthony Stoeckert

Posted: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 12:26 PM EDT

THERE'S a reason The Fantasticks is performed so darned often.The Fantasticks with Todd Lewis as Mortimer

Best known for being the world's longest-running musical (its original off-Broadway run lasted more than 40 years), Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' show is a standard among community and regional theater groups. The production by the Princeton Festival isn't your last chance to see it, but ifs hard to imagine a better version coming to a theater near you any time soon.

Wrth its lovely songs, laugh-out loud comedic moments and moral about the whimsy of romance and the value of love, The Fantasticks is sure to soften even the most hardened of hearts.

Upon entering the Matthews Acting Studio, the audience is greeted by a wooden set that is simplicity defined.

A character named The Mute starts things off by pulling her wardrobe out of the trunk and dressing up as Charlie Chaplin (right off the bat, director David Kellett manages a small surprise with this choice). Anne McKenna plays the mute, always maintaining her Little Tramp pose.

Soon we ·meet El Gallo who leads the opening number, "Try to Remember," the last lines of which sum up the point of the show: "Deep in December, ifs nice to remember/The fire of September that made us mellow/Deep in December, our hearts should remember/and follow."

El Gallo leads us through the tale of Luisa and Matt, a boy and girl who live next to each other and have fallen in love despite the (literaQ barrier between them. Many years ago a wall was built by the children's fathers, who told the kids they were forbidden to acknowledge each other.

The fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, are actually best of friends (their only disagreement is over how much water a garden needs) and built the wall in order to get their children to fall in love with each other. Children, you see, never listen to their parents.

Everyone in this cast is pitch-perfect, filling the small room with lovely voices without any microphones. As 16-year--old Luisa, Lauren Cupples shares a young girl's unbridled (and downright insane) enthusiasm. She's a princess, you see, and everything that happens to her is JUST AMAZING. She loves the taste of her tears, and even her eyelids are exciting. Matt is nearly as obsessed with Luisa as she is herself, which makes him a perfect match for the young girl. He's 20 and sums up his feeling about her this way: "She makes me young again!" He's just graduated college where he studied biology and compares Luisa to the inside of a leaf.

Take note of Hardin and Cupples on the duet "Metaphor." We never doubt the love between the characters, but the actors manage laughs out of the song (like when Matt sings of his mind being "parch-ed").

Gabe Allan {as Hucklebee, the boy's father) and Robert Mackasek (Bellomy, father to Luisa) have a blast. They get to act as best of chums (who eventually feud) and also express all the frustration of parenthood. An early highlight is "Never Say No," where they sing about kids pouring jam on the cat and putting beans in their ears. Why do children do such things? Because their parents said, "no,” of course.

Bigger laughs, guffaws even, come when we're introduced to Henry, an old actor (Patrick James) and his assistant (and fellow old actor) Mortimer (Todd Lewis). Their entrance is delightful and Lewis nearly steals the show. He's dressed up as a Native American (the way they look in old movies) with a long, black braid clearly clashing with his gray hair. He's also shirtless in most of his scenes, and a bit where he shows off his acting prowess via a death scene is a wonder. James gets his share of laughs as well. He's a great actor, his notices are somewhere in that trunk, but, curiously, he's thrown off by cues like, "Friends, Romans, countrymen."

Brett Algaier holds the evening together as El Gallo, the narrator and bandit the fathers hire in order to stage an attack on Luisa, from which Matt will save her. It works perfectly, except the happy ending happens too soon, just at the close of Act 1, in fact.

Inside a leaf is where life begins, so for Matt life begins with Luisa. And for us, summer begins with The Fantasticks. NOTE: The entire run of The Fantasticks is sold out, but you may luck into some cancellations. If not, the Princeton Festival is offering the rarely performed opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the production of The Fantasticks is any indication, it’s going to be a special season.

The Fantasticks is at the Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau St., Princeton, June 19, 24, 26-27, 8 p.m., June 21, 2 p.m. Tickets, if available, cost $30-$35; 800-595-4849; www.princetonfestival.org.

'The Fantasticks'

BY PETER FILICHIA FOR THE STAR-LEDGER

Here at the Princeton Festival, "The Fantasticks" unfolds beautifully until a terribly wrong-headed move occurs. All starts off very nicely as Brett Algaier tenderly sings the lovely waltz "Try to Remember." Nick Hardin and Lauren Cupples regard each other with puppy love in their eyes, ready to show the romance between young Matt and Luisa. Gabe Allan and Robert Mackasek, as their respective fathers, share a knowing look. They're pretending they don't want the two to get together, figuring that way, the kids are sure to rebel and marry. And then Charlie Chaplin shows up. Not the real Chaplin., of course, who died more than 30 years ago, but his trademark "Little Tramp" character. Anne McKeruia is dressed exactly as silent movie audiences saw Chaplin, from derby to large shoes, with that tiny square mustache right under her nose. Why? Because ''The Fantasticks" calls for a mute.

Director David Kellett, probably in a move to do something daring and different, let "The Little Tramp" portray that mute. As an idea, it may have seemed a good one on paper. onstage, though, McKenna continually winds up pulling focus away from the musical. The Mute usually gives a cast member a prop or two, then disappears. McKenna instead exits by aping Chaplin's funny walk and twirling her cane. Much as our eyes may want to ignore her, McKenna does everything to see we're watching her tipping her hat towards us in Chaplinesque fashion.

Too bad. The story, which Tom Jones adapted from Edmond ("Cyrano de Bergerac") Rostand's "Les Romanesques," is still charming after all these years. Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt may have written the show a half-century ago, but their work remains the best score ever to grace an off-Broadway musical. Those of a certain age will have no problem trying to remember such enchanting songs as "Much More," "I Can See It." and "Soon It's Gonna Rain." Younger audiences can discover them here, thanks to the plaintive renditions that Hardin and Cupples give them.

Hardin gives Matt that look of joy adolescent boys have when they discover that they like girls after all. Cupples makes Luisa as innocent as the pink-and-white dress she wears. Both characters must grow up fast in Act Two, and Hardin and CUpples make the adjustment into being much sadder and more than a little wise1: Brett Algaier cuts a swarthy figure as El Gallo, who sometimes narrates, and occasionally joins the action. When he does, he's a welcome addition to every scene.

Gabe Allan and Robert Mackasek are endearing song-and-dance men in their two numbers. Director Kellett, though, almost. sabotages the first song with an ancient musical comedy joke that should have been retired decades ago: Mackasek steps in front of Allan to hog the spotlight, while Allan fumes that he isn't getting his due.

There are two other important roles in the show, and they're played to perfection. What a delight Patrick James is as Henry, the elderly Shakespearean actor whose memory isn't what it used to be. Henry would steal every scene he's in li it weren't for his sidekick Mortimer, deliciously played by Todd Lewis. Dressed as a Native American, but sporting a stiff-upper-lip British accent. Lewis is deadly serious about what he's doing, which makes him all the funnier.

But then The Little Tramp comes on to distract the audience. For such a grandstanding move, Kellett deserves the punishment that Matt's father doles out to him: "Write 'simplicity' 200 times without stopping."