You have to figure out where to place the band on the stage, how to coordinate rehearsals between the band and the ensemble. Musicals are simply more complicated — far more so — than plays. And while the Colorado Shakespeare Festival has impressively performed Shakespeare for decades, after seeing their rendition of Tom Jones’ The Fantasticks, just the CSF’s second musical, I’m not convinced they’ve worked out all the kinks involved with putting on a musical production.
That’s not to say The Fantasticks was bad. There were plenty of great moments. It’s just that on the night I attended, the vocal performances from the actors were, across the board, marred with minor mistakes — a surprising deviation from the high quality we’ve come to expect from the CSF.
The Fantasticks has the great honor of being the longest-running off-Broadway musical (42 years) of all time. I’m not sure why. It’s delightfully weird and fun, but it seems very far from the mainstream to have such broad appeal. Jones based the story off The Romancers, by Cyrano de Bergerac scribe Edmond Rostand, and the actors deliver sometimes-rhyming lines with cadence and lyricism, much like a Shakespeare play. The plot revolves around two young people, 16-year-old Luisa (Emily Van Fleet) and 20-year-old Matt (Nick Henderson), who are desperately in love despite their parents’ seeming hatred of each other. In reality, we learn as the play unfolds, the parents are actually friends who have concocted said hatred in an attempt to manipulate their children into falling in love with each other. They even sing a song about the effectiveness of reverse psychology (“Never say ‘No’”). They hire bandits to kidnap Luisa, opting for the “first-class one” when the brigand El Gallo presents them with options, in song.
In a hilarious fight scene the CSF pulls off superbly, Matt saves the day, and the families attempt to live happily ever after. But as their frustration with each other and their children grows, they eventually reveal the farce. The lovers’ passion shatters
as the illusion of heroism dies, and the first act ends.
The second act turns from whimsical to bizarre, practically avant-garde. Head-in-the-clouds romantic Matt leaves Luisa to go see the world, and El Gallo (Seth Panitch) sends his actors after him to “teach” him the painful realities of life. After Matt leaves, Luisa begins to fall for El Gallo’s rugged good looks, and El Gallo becomes semi-omnipotent as he takes Luisa to watch Matt getting tortured.
It’s a strange scene. When Luisa holds a mask to her eyes, the torture becomes gleeful fun. When she removes the mask, she sees the torture for what it is. I can imagine some sort of metaphoric interpretation about growing out of childhood innocence and naivete, but regardless, it’s an undeniably odd way of expressing it.
There is plenty to praise in the CSF’s production of The Fantasticks. Van Fleet is an excellent Luisa, playing the starry-eyed girl with convincing teenage enthusiasm and self-obsession. Her voice is stellar, though not immune to the occasional crack and hiccup that seemed to plague the cast the night I attended. Henderson plays Matt with equally blind romanticism. Panitch is a dashing El Gallo. Together, the cast combines to deliver an extremely entertaining performance.
My main criticism is of the music, and my criticism comes in two forms. First, the score. The original score, by Harvey Schmidt, is sparse, manned only by a piano and a harp. If you come to The Fantasticks expecting a Chicago-style orchestra itching to rock your socks off, you will be sorely disappointed. I think it’s high time someone updated the score to include a full orchestra; at times, listening to a piano accompany the singers felt a little too much like watching a costumed rehearsal.
Secondly, the musicians just didn’t have their A-game the night I attended. Not a single cast member had a knockout performance; their voices, at times, sounded tired, unable to handle the deceptively tricky melodies of the score. Panitch must have dazzled Director Sands Hall with his acting skills, because his voice couldn’t quite produce the resonance necessary to make the low notes in “Try To Remember” sparkle. The low notes sounded like they pretty much bottomed out his range.
“Plant a radish, get a radish,” bemoan the parents in The Fantasticks. As far as musicals go, it seems like The Fantasticks could have used a little more fertilizer. The final harvest is tasty enough, but with proper care, it could have been much better.
On the Bill
The Fantasticks plays through Aug. 8 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the University of Colorado’s campus. Tickets are $10 to $50. For tickets or information, call 303-492- 0554 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.