Review: Porchlight’s “The Fantasticks”

The Fantasticks disappoints more than it thrills

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Porchlight Theatre presents:

The Fantasticks

by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
directed by Sean Kelly
through November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

 Fantasticks-7 The 1960 musical The Fantasticks, the longest running performance in American theatre history (almost 50 years!), was built-up to be spectacular production. Every musical theatre actor I know wanted to be a part of Porchlight Theatre’s production and long time musical fans praised The Fantasticks as a must see musical in Chicago. However, this production, now playing at Theatre Building Chicago, is a disappointment.

The story is about two innocent kids: Matt (Sean Effinger-Dean) and Luisa (Emma Rosenthal,) who naively fall in love due to the manipulation of their fathers. Knowing that all kids will do the exact opposite of what their father wants them to do, the fathers: Hucklebee (Dan Ferretti) and Bellomy (Ryan Lanning). pretend to despise each other and forbid Matt and Luisa from interacting. They insult one another in front of their children and build a tall fence to separate the two young neighbors. Of course, now that their interaction is forbidden, the two seek out each other’s company and there is a new passion that fills their shared moments. The fathers then plan their ultimate bizarre plan to bond the two lovers in marriage, but it all blows up in their faces when the kids realize that they have been manipulated. But don’t fear, all seems to work out in the end.

The set is cold and bare (maybe this is a  common element for the show), leaving the backyards of Matt and Luisa up to our imagination. The blue lighting softens the set a little bit, and being able to watch the pianist and Harpist play in the back of the stage provided the only magical romantic feeling to the scenery.

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The story is filled with catchy songs with fun satirical lyrics and beautiful accompaniment by the pianist and harpist. The vocal talent on stage is top-notch. The song “Try To Remember” is absolutely one of my favorites from any musical I have seen. I am still singing it in my head and, lucky for me, I can still hear Jeff Parker’s (El Gallo) soothing voice singing it. Unfortunately, the quality of songs is lost in the randomness of the choreography. The characters flit around in dance moves that have nothing to do with what the songs are about, adding nothing to the words or the feeling of the songs. At one point it looks as if jumping-jacks are substituted for actual dance. The bare stage offers the opportunity for the choreography to add to the play’s atmosphere and provide the emotion behind the music, but this opportunity is missed, coming off as childish fun.

Additionally, individual character development is lacking. There is no chemistry on stage – so there is a lack of believability to the emotional moments between Matt and Luisa. Many times Luisa appears to be pretending to have feeling for Matt, rather than truly falling in love with the boy in front of her. Luisa’s character is oddly cast. Emma Rosenthal’s voice, although beautiful, was too powerful and makes Luisa sound too womanly and older than her character. Ms. Rosenthal’s movements project a resolute maturity that surely would be lacking in a teenage girl – her strength then does not match up with the shy boy she is supposed to be fantasizing about.

Fantasticks-3 Sean Effinger-Dean’s character, however, is thoroughly enjoyable. Matt is not the typical “pretty boy” that may be found in a commercial love story. A 22-year old biologist, Matt sings and acts with the insecurity and social awkwardness that a 22 year old who is in love with a teenage girl would have. His role might not be as charming as it could have been, but the portrayal of the immaturity in a 22 year old boy is thoroughly convincing.

Jeff Parker’s El Gallo brings the only inspiring dramatic moments and sense of continuity to the play , but my favorite character in the play is the elegant mute (Tanya McBride).  Her subtle additions to the staging help create the feelings that surround the play, and it is incredible to witness her expressive face and fluid balletic movements, providing more magic to the stage than the interaction between characters.

This production makes one question the relationship between the two fathers. Do they have a fondness for each other beyond friendship? Do they want their offspring to marry just so that they can share a sense of a domesticated relationship they could not achieve in their current situations, or did their characters just lack the masculinity that I expected from a play written in the 1950’s?

I am skeptic when it comes to musicals (I don’t enjoy the fluff,) but I have seen good musical theatre and this is not it. This play has been successfully performed well for over 40 years, so the book would seem strong, so don’t turn your back on The Fantasticks as a whole, just this production.

Rating: ««½

Playing at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago, IL, Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through November 15, 2009.

 

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