Chicago Theatre Review
Less is Much More
The Fantasticks – Light Opera Works
As the opening production of their 35th season, a fantastic achievement of its own, one of Chicago’s most reliable theatrical treats, Light Opera Works, presents a unique version of an American musical theatre classic. This little gem premiered at Greenwich Village’s tiny Sullivan Street Theater back in 1960. It went on, not only to become the world’s longest-running musical (playing 42 years and logging in a staggering 17,162 performances), but to become the most widely-produced musical in the world. With its intimate feel, a simple, relatable plot, a gorgeous, lush score (demanding only keyboard or piano, harp and percussion accompaniment), an eight-member cast and very modest technical requirements, this musical is a favorite with regional and educational theatres, alike.
Loosely based upon Edmund Rostand’s play, “Les Romanesques,” Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s allegorical musical draws widely from a number of other plays and theatrical styles. It borrows elements from the mythical tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet.” It lifts the concept of an all-knowing narrator from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and the exaggerated staging of Carlo Goldoni’s “A Servant of Two Masters,” during which, as with plays by Bertolt Brecht, the fourth wall is broken and characters speak directly to the audience. There are also elements taken from the Medieval pageant wagons, commedia dell’arte, Japanese Noh drama and English Music Hall and Pantomime theatrical traditions.
The story is simplicity itself. Matt and Louisa, are in love, but their feuding fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, have built a wall between their properties to keep the children apart. In actuality the parents are the best of friends, and they’ve been planning their children’s prearranged marriage for years. Using reverse psychology, the fathers trick their progeny into secretly meeting, falling in love and pledging to marry. But to insure that it really happens, the
parents hire El Gallo, Henry and Mortimer, a small troupe of actors, to stage a mock abduction, with the idea that Matt will defeat the villains, win Louisa’s undying devotion and the parents will be able to be friends again. Everything works out as planned in the romantic moonlight but, in Act II, the sun’s harsh reality uncovers everyone’s flaws and insecurities. The lovers split up and this time the parents really quarrel and separate. Only when they’ve all learned their individual lessons do they reunite, battered and bruised but wiser for the experience.
For this production, Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller, who played The Mute in the show’s 30th Anniversary tour back in 1990, has chosen to present an expanded version of the musical. The story and characters are all the same as in the 1960 original, although there’s some additional dialogue and scenic material. There’s even a new song for El Gallo. The set is essentially the same, but Adam Veness has expanded the basic platform flanked by supporting poles and simple curtain. He’s added multicolored carnival lights, shredded green draperies to represent the glade, a colorful act curtain and lots of wooden stairs and levels on which to play. Alicia Anne Lees’ costumes are true to Schmidt and Jones, with El Gallo, the Spaniard, dressed all in black, Matt and Louisa in innocent white and the two fathers in colorful, clownish costumes that reflect their personalities. Andrew H. Meyers’ lighting is appropriately romantic in Act I and radiantly revealing in Act II.
However, the biggest change for this production is that, instead of simple piano and harp accompaniment, whimsically accented with percussion, Hogenmiller has directed his show featuring Light Opera Works’ traditional full orchestra. Under conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s skilled baton, the score is performed by 23 pieces, the largest professional ensemble to ever play this show.
While all of these additions to the original seem like they’d be the icing on this already delicious theatrical cake, the real beauty of Schmidt and Jones’ is its simplicity. The clean, uncluttered naivete of that production, the way it was first presented at the Sullivan Street Theatre, can’t be improved. As Robert Browning once wrote, “less is more.” Without any extra embellishments, Jones’ story speaks directly to the heart; accompanied simply by piano and harp, Schmidt’s score and Jones’ poetic lyrics resonate with the soul. It’s difficult and unnecessary to try to improve upon perfection.
That said, the vocal power and majesty of this production can’t be beat. Meredith Kochan is perfection as Louisa. This exceptional, stunning young actress has the clear soprano voice of an angel and moves gracefully and confidently through this love story, bringing the audience along on her journey toward understanding and maturity. She’s matched by handsome, athletic Christopher MacGregor’s gloriously sung and powerfully acted Matt. This young man has a long future ahead of him. Mr. MacGregor plays Matt as a cocky, over-confident boy, at first. Not completely sure of himself, he rises to the occasion during Louisa’s abduction; after the world hurts and humiliates him, he finally emerges a stronger, humble young man by the end of the play. Louisa’s “Much More,” Matt and Louisa’s gorgeous duets, “Metaphor” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” as well as their eleventh hour ballad, the breathtaking “They Were You,” are this production’s musical highlights.
James Anest has that pure, rich baritone that defines El Gallo. This tall, lithe young actor, who looks great in Ms. Lee’s Spanish-inspired costumes, is a handsome, peerless combination of Inigo Montoya and Zorro. Displaying perfect diction and vocal clarity, Mr. Anest’s slow, dramatic pacing, however, feels contradictory for a hotblooded brigand. The gentleness behind El Gallo’s narratives is a good choice, particularly his “There is a curious paradox” speech, and his musicality is exceptional. Mr. Anest’s gorgeously sung “Try to Remember,” his rousing “It Depends on What You Pay,” as well as his duets with Matt, “I Can See It,” and Louisa, “Round and Round,” are superior and would make Schmidt and Jones proud.
As the two fathers, Kirk Swenk was born to play Bellomy, the girl’s father. Fussy, meticulous and thrifty, Mr. Swenk brings an honest, natural fidgety quality to his character that’s charming. Rick Rapp’s Hucklebee, while vocally impressive, blusters but feels less driven and a bit aimless, at times. However, together these two actors complement one another, and their duets, the tango-infused “Never Say No” and their soft shoe tempo “Plant a Radish,” are fun. James Harms and Brian Rooney provide many of the laughs as Henry, the Old Actor, and Mortimer, the Man Who Specializes in Death Scenes. They bring the “Abduction Ballet” onto its toes and provide the humor within the various scenarios of “Round and Round.” Clayton Cross displays a dancer’s strength and agility, making him a wonderfully lithe and limber Mute. Seeming to almost float through the air, this young actor ably provides the props and necessary assistance for El Gallo and the other characters.
Rudy Hogenmiller’s production of this American musical classic is dazzling and dreamy, yet a bit overstuffed. The original production by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, with its intimate, less-is-more style of presentation, is nearly perfect as can be. It doesn’t require additional scenes, new songs or full orchestration. While this expanded version is interesting, it lacks the intimacy of the 1960 version. Conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s musical sinfonietta sounds lush and full, but it’s really Linda Madonia on piano and, in particular, Benjamin Melsky on harp who make this score sing. Sometimes sluggish, the pacing slows this production down to a ponderous two-and-a-half hours. With so much talent giving their everything on the Cahn Auditorium stage, this interesting production should really be “Much More.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 6-14 by Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-920-5360 or by going to www.LightOperaWorks.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com