Let’s get to the bottom line first. I am not in love with Rep Stage’s production of this classic musical, and it is almost entirely the fault of Paul Edward Hope in the crucial role of El Gallo. Now let’s step back for a minute.
This is an ancient musical which shows its age, and the principal challenge of any production is to distract audiences from the outdated values and concepts through the beautiful music and outlandish characterizations. Here is the story: the very young Luisa (Stephanie Schmalzle) and Matt (Benjamin Lurye) are in love – a passion which Luisa’s father Bellomy (Darren McDonnell) and Hucklebee (Michael Bunce), Matt’s dad, paradoxically encourage through a feigned enmity between the two houses. To seal the deal, Bellomy and Hucklebee engage the notorious El Gallo and two itinerant hams (Nigel Reed and Peter Boyer) to stage an abduction (and, in the original, an attempted rape). Matt bravely fights them off – all according to the dads’ plan – and wins the heart, and hand, of Luisa.
There is a second Act, though. Matt discovers the skullduggery of the fathers, and resolves to find real adventure in the wide world. Luisa, thrown over by Matt, falls in love with El Gallo. Without getting into too many details, both young people acquire cause to regret their choices.
I’ve already alluded to the modification to the script caused by the fact we no longer joke about rape (in this production, the word “raid” is substituted for “rape” wherever possible) but how about this? Luisa is only sixteen years old, in love with a twenty-year-old man. What’s more, she’s a very young sixteen, who fantasizes herself to be a princess and whose first words to Matt as they meet for a woodland assignation is “will you take care of me?” Do we tolerate this attitude, or even understand it, in the twenty-first century?
Or, how about this: Hucklebee announces (falsely, as it turns out) to Matt that he has arranged a marriage for him! This was problematic in 1960 (The Fantasticks was based in Edmund Rostand’s 1894 play Les Romanesques) and is virtually incomprehensible now. But worst of all, the message behind The Fantasticks appears to be that foreign cultures are inherently dangerous, irrational and cruel, and that any attempt to experience them will leave you either horrified or jejune. The more compassionate and sophisticated approach of taking a different culture on its own terms (as, for example, Oscar Hammerstein did in The King and I) is not on the table.
So the dilemma every production faces is to get by all those open questions, and restore The Fantasticks to its innocence, and to the fabulous Harvey Schmidt music (bookwriter Tom Jones – no, not that Tom Jones – also wrote the lyrics.) This requires an absolutely compelling El Gallo, who is both magician and mystic: a man who can make time slow down and stop; who can summon demons, or at least actors, at will; and who can show visions to Luisa and bring experience to her innocence. He must be someone of great gravity and perspective, a giver of wisdom.
Closes May 18, 2014
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
I am sorry to report that Schmalzle and Lurye do not do much better. Schmatzle was flat on a number of occasions in the production I saw; Lurye was better but both of them tended to be overpowered by Ross Scott Rawling’s excellent piano. On the other hand, the dads sound great; Bunce and McDonnell harmonize beautifully, and deliver their unchallenging dialogue well. And Lynette Rathnam bestows El Gallo’s mute accomplice with an ethereal sense of threat which would have been extremely effective had Hope played the lead role differently.
The show’s real delight is whenever Nigel Reed appears as the incorrigible ham actor Henry and Peter Boyer accompanies him as his dimwitted assistant Mortimer, who can’t act much but sure knows how to die. There is no over-the-top for these roles, but the two veteran actors squeeze every drop of foolishness conceivable from these characters, and achieve the ultimate in comic acting: the audience begins to laugh as soon as they appear on stage.
The Fantasticks . book and lyrics by Tom Jones . music by Harvey Schmidt . directed by Nancy Tarr Hart . musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings . choreography by Ilona Kessell . featuring Lynette Rathnam, Paul Edward Hope, Stephanie Schmalzle, Benjamin Lurye, Darren McDonnell, Nigel Reed and Peter Boyer. Lighting design by Michael D. Klima . costume design by Denise Umland . properties design by Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler . fight choreography by Jenny Male. Set consultant: A. David Blachowicz . Raine Bode, assisted by Nick Genna, was the stage manager. Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.