Chicago Theatre Review
Try to Remember…
The Fantasticks- Quest Theatre
Deceptively simple, yet beautiful and deeply moving, this little musical jewel holds the distinction of being the World’s longest-running musical. Opening in 1960, this Tony Award-winning show played for 42 years Off Broadway at the Sullivan Street Theatre. It closed for a while and then reopened once again, due to popular demand, in 2006 near Times Square at the Snapple Theatre, where it continues to pack the house.
Life Magazine once called this musical “a sophisticated story about innocence.” This timeless, universal fable about love is theatrical perfection. Playwright and lyricist Tom Jones, together with his composing partner Harvey Schmidt, borrowed elements from Kabuki and Noh Theatre, ancient mythology, epic poetry, Shakespeare and the plays of Thornton Wilder to create a unique theatrical form that is known the world over. It’s traditionally played like commedia dell’arte, nestled on a tiny platform before a makeshift curtain.
The musical contains some of theatre’s most beloved songs: “Try to Remember,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” “They Were You,” and so many others. Its eight-member cast take turns as storytellers as well as playing the characters of the story. The music is played onstage by piano and harp, with a few added percussion instruments thrown in for good measure. Schmidt and Jones’ finest work is a classic and proof perfect of that old adage, “Less is More.”
But this latest production, part of Quest’s admirable free theatre, unfortunately misses the point. Director Kent Joseph seems to be of the opinion that if a show is funny, doing it bigger and louder will make it better and bring down the house. Once again, less is more, and Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones understood that when writing this classic. Mr. Joseph’s experience as a director isn’t documented in the program, so one can only surmise that this may be his first experience in staging a musical. The characterizations are far too broad, the ad libs, while sometimes amusing, are totally unnecessary, the additional clutter of props and set pieces unneeded and everything is simply too big and overwrought. The show often comes off as a loud circus, with everyone trying to outdo each other.
In stripping away the lavish set and property pieces, placing the show on a simple platform and masking the scene with that iconic curtain, the audience is forced to draw upon its own imagination to supply the details. This isn’t that production. For example, El Gallo says, “Their moon was cardboard, fragile. It was very apt to fray.” Not THIS moon. Josephy Pilka has created a giant, massively heavy, paper mache lunar depiction on a thick wooden pole that’s anything but “fragile.”
The best moments of this production are the simplest, and there are a few. The musical’s strongest element is a terrifically talented musical director named Sara Cate Langham who, together with Keryn Wouden, also provide exceptional accompaniment on piano and harp. The show’s best moments are its quieter scenes, such as the duets between Matt and Louisa, El Gallo’s lovely rendition of “Try to Remember” and a melancholy exchange of dialogue between the two parents, painfully relating how lonely they’ve become since the Boy left home and the Girl has withdrawn into herself.
Other positive features include the performances of the always excellent Adam Fane, as Matt, and fresh-faced ingenue, Tiffany Williams, as Louisa. Dashing Robert Quintanilla makes a handsome, El Gallo. He and Fane deliver a strong “I Can See It,” while Williams and Quintanilla wow the audience with their rousing “Round and Round.” Lindsey Jouett’s Mute adds so much to the show, telling her story with only her graceful movement and expressive face. As the kids’ parents, Jordan DeBose and Megan Elk are both talented performers, but while DeBose does a nice job as Bellomy, Louisa’s father, the part of Hucklebee was written to be played by a man. Using two dads, as intended, makes the humor of their relationship much stronger.
Presenting live theatre for free, or even at affordable prices, is admirable in this money hungry world. Quest Theatre Ensemble, the “People’s Theatre of Chicago,” has been producing plays and musicals for fifteen years. While there are many fine moments in this production, and some excellent talent is represented on the stage, the simplicity of this musical has been forgotten or completely ignored. Without the requisite restraint and naivette that Schmidt and Jones intended, this classic loses its beauty and charm. Try to remember…indeed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 18-March 26 by Quest Theatre Ensemble at the Blue Theater, 1609 E. Gregory, Chicago.
Tickets are FREE, but reservations are recommended, by calling 312-458-0895 or by going to www.questensemble.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.