A small troupe of actors break into an old, abandoned theatre and begin scavenging for props and costumes as two musicians find their way to an old piano and a harp. A dashing and mysterious narrator steps forward to sing “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow” and so begins the story of two young lovers’ journey from moonlit first love through hurt, loss, lessons learned to finally come to a seasoned, selfless love.
‘The Fantasticks’ was written in 1960 by Tom Jones with music by Harvey Schmidt and tells a simple allegory of a girl, a boy, two fathers and a wall. Director Seema Sueko brings this classic musical to a contemporary audience with extraordinary vision that is beautifully excecuted by this sensational cast. There is a reason this show is the longest running musical in history; it works. The story is funny, charming and poignant while the score is engaging and lush. Sueko takes it to new levels by placing the action inside the abandoned theatre with the Playhouse even playing a character, as it was once shuttered from 1969 to 1985, which allows the production team to create theatre magic from moonlit backdrops to bottomless treasure chests and thunderstorms. Sueko is unafraid to mine the darker corners of the play, giving the cast opportunities to deliver deep and poignant performances.
Philip Anthony-Rodriguez gives a breathtakingly charismatic performance as the enigmatic, seductive narrator/bandit El Gallo. His gorgeous voice soars in the show stopping numbers “I Can See It” and “Round and Round” while giving a subtle grace to “Try to Remember.” Ashley Park is a luminous Luisa enlisting her melodic soprano voice to bring a giddy, infectious joy to “Much More”, sweet anticipation to “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and she is devastating as she comes to maturity in the poignant “They Were You.” Equally charming is Conor Guzman as the young buck, Matt, all youthful pride, bravado and lovesick passion. He thrills in the duet “I Can See It” and sings “They Were You” with heartbreaking vulnerability. The two young lovers have terrific, fun chemistry that grows into something they don’t quite expect.
The incomparable Hal Linden graces the stage as the traveling thespian, Henry, who, along with his sidekick, a crisp and hysterical Amir Talai as Mortimer, appear to assist El Gallo in his plan. Linden cuts a dashing figure while possessing perfect comedic timing, getting a laugh merely for entering at an opportune moment. His performance is finely tuned yet effortless, making a terrific comedy team with Talai. The two fathers, Bellamy and Hucklebee, are given delightful life by Regi Davis and Gedde Watanabe respectively. As the neighbors/friends/enemies, they are a joy to watch in their vaudevillian style numbers. Finally, there is Alyse Rockett who gives a magical sprite-like portrayal of the mute who creates time, place and weather through props and movement adding a touch of fairy dust to the proceedings.
The musical direction by David O. is deceptively subtle as the lone piano and harp fill the space with the timeless score. Truly, one is so captivated by these songs, they could have been written yesterday. The entire design team should be applauded for this sumptuous set which is made to feel as if it’s abandoned. There are old, drab drapes hanging loosely around the scaffolding that evoke the American flag and on this Opening Night on the anniversary of 9/11, that September song took on new layers of meaning. Perhaps in this post 9/11 world, that song will forever have new meaning for as El Gallo says “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”
The Fantasticks runs Tues-Fri at 8pm; Sat at 4pm & 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through October 2 at The Pasadena Playhouse- 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. (626) 356-7529. PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Photo credit: Jim Cox