THE FANTASTICKS Perfect for The Village Playbox

by Jack Shaw

The company did a “fantastic” job, in all areas. I had to say it that way at some point. The lively, highly animated nature of the show itself makes me exclaim, “The Village Playbox players performed THE FANTASTICKS with amazing gaiety.” This production, unlike most other musicals that also make you laugh and cry, does it in a most unusual way as it playfully helps you to identify with the characters.

The musical itself did not become the longest running off-Broadway musical because it was flashy. THE FANTASTICKS had over 17,000 performances because the comedy-musical was colorful, vibrant, romantic, and sad. It proved small off-Broadway shows could turn a profit. The show’s creators, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt made the show musically entertaining, comical, and meaningful. They made it for a small stage, which included a small budget, perfect for an off-Broadway theatre. It was also perfect for The Village Playbox this Saturday night.

The story is one we all know– about a boy and a girl who yearn for a perfect life with a happy ending. Then, reality bites. The story is a simple allegorical tale that amuses and moves us with its illusionary aspects. Of course, we know real life isn’t that simple, and that’s partly the point.

Bryan Mead and Cierra Olmo star as Matt and Luisa in THE FANTASTICKS.
(Photo credit: Steve Allen)

To relay its message to the audience, the theatre stage is practically bare and actors come out with a silent introduction, and the actors flit around the stage even during the Overture. In front, set back to give the actors room, is a box. Behind it are two curtains, one for us to see and one for the actors who exit the stage later. Another box is set off to one side. The actors bring in a chair and props. That’s all. The production does not pretend to be real. The costumes are outlandish as possible (in fact, the more outrageous the better and a costumers delight, I’m sure).

In a production like this, the characters flow on stage easily and comfortably, always connecting with the entire audience because of the theatre’s intimacy, not just proximity. No one on or off stage is left out of the program. One character, “The Mute” moves about helping actors on with costumes and acts as a wall. She has no lines to say, yet she affects us as deeply with her expressions as those characters who have a lot to say. “El Gallo” tells us to “try and remember” how we felt when we were young. “Try,” I think, is a key word because most all of us have changed, grown-up, and there is a need to pry out those memories. The company does some of that prying with sparkle and colorful ticker tape.

THE FANTASTICKS tells a romantic story, one that is universal to all of us. It makes us go back in time in our lives when we dreamed came true, when everything we saw or experienced was beautiful or appealing. Even when we faced something contrary to our romantic notions, our dreams, we rationalized, looking through a mask that hid the ugliness of reality. We went on that way until real life stared us in the face. Then, we matured. We are no longer the children playing in the back yard or talking over the fence with our neighbors’ children.

Romance is special. It is a happy and fun time, full of good feelings and pheromone highs so we embrace the way we feel. However, we should never forget how we felt during that time. We may even leave the theatre with a pang of regret.

John Blackwell cast and directed a fine ensemble of actors, balancing frenetic pacing and a drowsy butterfly pace—a lightness, or casualness of character to extend a hand calmly to the audience. The actors sing lightly (perhaps too much so at times), make love, fake fighting, and make us laugh at them and ourselves. They sing loudly proclaiming the romantic life must continue. The staging is right for great comic and physical timing to keep things moving, with still a sense of gaiety, and a lightness of being. The production does get physical, stopping short of acrobatics. The show moves quickly, although I found the pacing in Act I to be smoother than Act II, but so much as to distract from the show. The singing was fine for the most part—with one singer a bit soft. The comedic performances came off, as it seemed they should. Tom Jones’ lyrics and Harvey Schmidt’s music combined with witty and charming dialogue ensures THE FANTASTICKS is a show to remember.

As in most shows, there are always a few actors or singers who demand our attention with their fine performances. Strangely enough, I was particularly impressed with The Mute played by Mia DiFillipo, whose fairy-like expressions and gestures were as powerful as any lines, stealing a moment here and there. Her dreamlike presence on stage made her character even more appealing. I liked the young couple, Cierra Olmo (Luisa) and Bryan Mead (Matt). Each made the most of the songs they were given. Everyone on stage and off (with all things technical) had their own outstanding moments. The fathers, Glen Funkhouser (Hucklebee) and Tyrone Fuimaomo (Bellomy) made a great team, feeding off each other’s comic intentions. They also have terrific voices. Eddie Olmo, II, (Mortimer) was delightfully vigorous as “Henry’s crutch,” and Jon Guire as “Henry” made us laugh from the time he comes out of the box. Jon Messe’s stage presence was terrific, although I found his gestures at times a little robotic and repetitive. The lights and music often enhanced a scene more than you would think.

I had seen a professional traveling production of this show in Portland, Ore. Now, my seats were not high enough to make you dizzy, but far enough that it was difficult to connect completely with the characters. Here it was different. My fourteen-year-old daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I know the audience did as well.

The Village Playbox demonstrated how experiencing THE FANTASTICKS sitting close up and personal seems to be the way the play works best, and they pulled it off with much success. THE FANTASTICKS brings the romantic out in everyone regardless of age. The Village Playbox production of the show gave us a “happy ending” after all. The high-energy physicality brought us all back to theatre in the raw, theatre that is in your face, “close up and personal,” and for that I am most appreciative. There is still a weekend left as of this review, and this fine production is really worth a look.

Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones
Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by John Blackwell
January 31, February 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 14 & 15, 2014
The Village Playbox
First Presbyterian Church
28 Seventh Avenue
Haddon Heights, NJ 08035



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