Theater Review: THE FANTASTICKS: A LOVE STORY REIMAGINED (Coachella Valley Rep)

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by Jason Mannino on November 5, 2023

in Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley),Theater-Regional


Pride weekend was the perfect time for CVRep to open its production of The Fantasticks, A Love Story Reimagined. It is the opening production of Artistic Director Adam Karsten’s second season. If you want to know how he is doing, I suggest looking no further than the caliber of the creative team on- and offstage in this exquisite production.

When The Fantasticks opened Off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times wrote, “[it] is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures.“ However, audiences succumbed to the show’s enchanting spell and Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s complex and joyful score, which is impeccably played by Music Director Chip Prince on the piano and Christian Califour on harp. Loosely based on Edmund Rostand’s Les Romanesques, audiences embraced the show’s subtle sophistication, complexity, powerful lyrics, and rhymed verse making The Fantasticks the longest-running musical in history running for 42 years and 17,162 performances.

Eric Phelps & Jack Mastrianni

The Fantasticks is a bewitching, charming tale concerning two neighboring fathers who trick their children, Luisa and Matt, into falling in love by pretending to feud. In 2022, Michael Lluberes, Artistic Director at The Flint Repertory Theatre, wrote to the surviving creator of the show, Tom Jones (who sadly passed away this year) to share his idea to reimagine the show’s script and music by changing genders: Luisa and Matt are now Lewis and Matt and the fathers are now mothers. Jones initially resisted. He eventually came around and not only agreed to Lluberes’s request but endeavored to collaborate on a fully realized revival. Hence, we have the beautifully mounted The Fantasticks, A Love Story Reimagined with Broadway veterans in the cast, no less.

Jack Mastrianni, Eric Kunze, Eric Phelps, Amber Lux Archer

The play opens on Mute (Amber Lux Archer), soon joined by El Gallo (Eric Kunze). They are our guides who show us two households, and the wall the mothers (Sadé Ayodele and Lisa Vroman) have built to keep their young children apart. However, we soon learn they devised this strategy to orchestrate their sons falling in love and marrying. When we meet Lewis (Jack Mastrianni) and Matt (Eric Phelps) we realize the strategy has been successful and that they are already in love with love and each other.

Lisa Vroman, Eric Kunze, Amber Lux Archer, Sade Ayodele

With the help of El Gallo, the parents agree to have Lewis abducted so Matt can save him and seal the marriage. El Gallo gets assistance from an old actor Henry (masterfully embodied by Wayne Bryan) and his sidekick Mortimer (played by energetic and hysterical Erik Scott Romney). It works, and Act I ends with the families moonlit and frozen in a happily ever after tableau. When Act II opens the families are still in their frozen tableau but night has turned into day. The sun is scorching. The families are irritable and at each other’s throats. Their happily ever after is momentary. Lewis and Matt go their separate ways to explore the world, and each endure the wounds which teach them that what they yearn for, they already have — each other.

Wayne Bryan, Eric Phelps, Erik Scott Romney

The Fantasticks has always been beguiling, sweet, and charming. However, the beauty of this reimagined version is even more so as it transports us to a utopian world where Lewis and Matt’s mothers recognize their sons’ same-sex love before they do and embrace it as utterly natural. When they are interviewing El Gallo, he asks, “Two boys. Two boys? And you’re not worried?” One brushes him off simply, saying, “They love each other. Why should we be worried?” To which El Gallo replies, “Good point. Very good point.”

Sade Ayodele, Amber Lux Archer, Lisa Vroman

The casting choices in this production are impeccable. Hiring accomplished dancer Ms. Archer in the role of Mute works wonders as she gracefully partners with El Gallo to guide us through this story. El Gallo is the rock of the evening and Kunze embodies him with grounded masculinity and velvety, warm vocals (“Try to Remember”). Lisa Vroman brings her lilting soprano, comic chops and stage prowess effortlessly as Lewis’s mother Bessie Mae and Sadé Ayodele gives a rich powerhouse performance as Matt’s mother Mildred — their “Never Say No” was very amusing. Wayne Bryan and Erik Scott Romney are a joy to behold as they masterfully execute the physical comedy: Romney, with a charming Cockney accent, has an especially amazing death scene that was greeted with an ovation, while Bryan captures our hearts as a doddering old thespian. Mastrianni embodies Lewis’s adolescence with innocence and a little naïveté, but also sexuality, while Phelp’s Matt, a little older, is more grounded and masculine. This makes their chemistry palpable and their union exciting, especially in “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You.”

Elegantly directed by Craig Wells, every aspect of this production is in top form. Jimmy Cuomo’s set is simply whimsical and Moira Wilkie Whitaker’s lighting design adds layers of enchanting allurement to CVRep’s extraordinary production.

Jack Mastrianni & Eric Kunze

photos by David A. Lee

Coachella Valley Repertory
Wed & Sat at 2 & 7; Thurs & Fri at 7; Sun at 2
ends on November 12, 2023 EXTENDED to November 19, 2023
for tickets ($50 – $88), call 760.296.2966×115 or visit CVRep
for more info, visit Jones & Schmidt

Jack Mastrianni and Eric Phelps

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tony November 6, 2023 at 5:33 pm

This revival can run as long as the original, as far as I’m concerned. Simply one of the best nights of theater anywhere, let alone in Coachella Valley, which isn’t always known for productions so professional and successful. DO NOT MISS THIS ONE.


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