Chicago Theater Review: THE FANTASTICKS (Light Opera Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 7, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

COPE WITH HOPE

A tale for all ages, this perennially popular musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (creators of I Do! I Do!) got a major make-over in 1990: The 30th anniversary tour with Robert Goulet featured director Rudy Hogenmiller as The Mute in an enlarged version not seen since ’til now. No more a chamber piece with piano and harp accompaniment, the revival boasted a full orchestra, giving an already solid score new breadth and depth. Happily, Light Opera Works’ minimalist make-believe engages our imagination as it flatters our experience. The Evanston company forfeits no intimacy to this expanded edition. Resonant as ever, the eight-character parable with songs again proves that life’s limits shape love’s strengths.

The Fantasticks

As the name suggests, The Fantasticks depicts two fathers (the mothers’ absences are never explained) and two lovers (the proverbial boy and girl next door) who live in misleading fantasy worlds that must yield to time and fate. Much like Our Town (which also concentrates on seminal turning points and employs an all-knowing narrator), the plot forces its folks to sacrifice a few distracting dreams in order to grow up. Archly artificial, the romantic first act marinates in moonlight as Matt and Luisa fall in love across a wall like the one in “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Using negative psychology (“Never Say No”), the boy’s dad Hucklebee and girl’s father Bellamy trick the moonstruck kids into matrimony by pretending to quarrel. (Keep them apart, they figure, and they’re sure to connect.) Assuming that adversity will bond the sweethearts, the dads hire the serviceable rogue El Gallo and vaudevillian-like hacks Henry and Mortimer (recalling Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, the first an addlepated Shakespearean ham and the second a specialist in theatrical deaths) to stage a phony abduction (no longer called a “rape”). Matt defeats the phony miscreants, thus earning Luisa’s gratitude and hand.

The Fantasticks

But in the jazzier second act (which anticipates the post-happy ending disillusionment of Into The Woods), the mood moves from “scenic to cynic.” Replacing the moon, the spare-no-stupidity sun takes charge to expose romantic fictions that can’t sustain a marriage. (Wishful thinking is neither.) Matt and Luisa must see “Beyond the Road” to appreciate the happiness that’s at stake and the promises that can’t be wagered. El Gallo tests the lovers: Eager for adventure (the driving rouser “I Can See It”), Matt runs off to be fleeced in the city (much like Pinocchio running afoul of crooks at Pleasure Island). Like Candide’s Cunegonde on her own, Luisa, stifled at home, finds herself courted by El Gallo. (He knows that jealousy will reset romance when the spouses refuse to take passion for granted.) The snow-covered finale restores balance as much as it reunites the wandering soulmates.

The Fantasticks

There’s wisdom as much as warmth in James Anest’s sagacious baritone: As stage-managing El Gallo, he’s a deft tour guide for the story’s every twist and turn. Meredith Kochan’s brittle naïveté as Luisa  (“Much More”) is ignorance masked as innocence while, as malleable Matt, dashing Christopher MacGregor learns from loss to dispense with phony heroism. In the loveliest of Schmidt’s enchanting waltzes, the mates discover (“They Were You”) that there’s no place like home. The foxy fathers with their horticultural similes are richly mined by Rick Rapp and Kirk Swenk. Witty support comes from James Harms as a plucky player, Brian Rooney as his silly sidekick, and Clayton Cross as the all-purpose Mute, a dog’s-body ripe for any errand.

The Fantasticks

More than the sometimes precious and premediated plot, it’s the true and tender songs that explain this charmer’s 55-year hold on the public’s heart more than head. No question, these ballads are delicious–the lovers’ devotion in “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” the garden-loving dads’ sardonic “Plant a Radish,” even the grandiloquent “Metaphor,” an anthem that fits the show like an epilogue. Leading a superb 23-piece orchestra, Roger L. Bingaman gives an old score novel wealth.

The Fantasticks

Hogenmiller graces Cahn Auditorium’s 140-minute crash course in life’s challenges with deft dances and cunning moments of truth. Adam Veness’s simple and ever-changing set creates its own dynamic dialogue. On opening night the action, especially in the second act, felt a tad lethargic. (It’s not smart to belabor the musical’s messages or let the audience predict or overly examine the lessons learned.) Fortunately, the magic matters so we treasure the show’s tricks. You won’t need to “try to remember” because this happy ending earns its emotion.

The Fantasticks

photos by Mona Luan

The Fantasticks
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium
600 Emerson Street in Evanston
ends on June 14, 2015
for tickets, call 847.920.5360 or visit Light Opera Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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