|Full Cast and Company of The Fantasticks at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by: Jim Cox Photography|
In 1960 Tom Jones (Book and Lyrics) (not Tom, the singer: "It’s not Unusual" Tom) and Harvey Schmidt (Musical Score) were coaxed from obscurity to refine a one act musical they had worked on as college students to present Off Broadway: a romance in two acts. For over fifty years and 3,000 productions in almost every country in the world, The Fantasticks has brought to life the scheming of parents to bring their children together by just saying, “No!” Before the Pasadena Playhouse was shuttered from 1969 to 1985, a student production of the play was presented in the annex that now houses a restaurant that is part of the Playhouse complex. These many years later, director Seema Seuko, has resurrected the show by deliberately changing up the casting to include representatives of many diverse ethnicities pointing up that it’s the heart of the material performed by a heart felt cast with simple piano on stage accompaniment by music arranger / pianist David O and occasional harp interludes by Liesl Erman that bring the show to life. Conversely, The Fantasticks continues its run Off Broadway East (NYC!) with a more traditional cast including Madison Parks as Luisa, the daughter of my friend, Garrett Parks. I mention this for a reason that will become clear in a moment.
David F. Weiner’s elaborate yet dilapidated set breaks tradition by not exhibiting a large flying drop featuring “The Fantasticks” painted upon it. This is substituted by what looks to be the remains of a circus tent. The up stage wall opens to the blue sky as our cast of characters are brought in stealthily by The Mute (lithe Alyse Rockett). All the choreography is finely tuned by Kitty McNamee. To do this show in the rustic remains of an old playhouse reminds us of the last time The Fantasticks was presented here so many years ago. As El Gallo (elegant and slightly restrained Philip Anthony Rodriguez) addresses the audience with the first and possibly the most memorable tune of the show, “Try to Remember.. “ As he sings, we are gently lulled into the story of first love, young love, heart ache and heart break that has kept this exquisite play alive for all these years. Having actually paid to see an abysmal production of the show a few months ago, having the Playhouse bring it to life properly is pure enjoyment. This creative approach with the ethnic mix of a Eurasian Luisa (Ashly Park in slightly forced operatic tones), homegrown white boy, Matt (Conor Guzman, with a slightly more relaxed approach), his Japanese dad Hucklebee (Gedde Watanbe) and Luisa’s father Bellomy (African American Regi Davis), we immediately accept that it’s the story not the ethnicities of the actors that will bring the play to life. Director Sueko, points up in her program notes that in our current age of domestic strife and wars around the world, this story of conflict is a tempest in a teapot that mirrors, if only slightly how, if we make an effort, differences can be over come and peace may guide the planet (to coin a phrase…) “and love may steer the stars.”
For those who are not familiar with the story, suffice it to say that every plot must have some twists. Ours is twisted by the tail to the great joy of the audience as El Gallo hires Henry Albertson (Wonderful.. Hal Linden), an actor of Some Repute with his protégé and side kick, Mortimer (Amir Tala, who momentarily steals the show) whose specialty is ‘dying!’ At Henry’s command to show his stuff, Tala, mimes an entire scene of preparing a poison potion, getting the glasses mixed up and.. voila.. ker plunk! Applause.
A few opening night hesitations were not conspicuous and the flow of the two acts that brings the audience to its feet makes this a favorite that is not to be missed. Subtle changes to the play with Tom Jones and The Rape Song were acceptable. Additional insights and moments to remember are installed in the small gallery just off the courtyard where props and costumes are ready for silly selfies and the history of the show from its early beginnings are all on display.
Try to remember the last time you sat in the theatre for two hours and left feeling that the time had flown by and not yet deep in December the art and craft of Theatre with a capital “T” had left something warm and honest in your heart. It’s all about the heart. Jones and Schmidt bring that heart to life..
I mentioned Maddie Parks earlier. She is the living heir to her family tradition, now playing Luisa nightly in New York, as her grandmother did theatre there so long ago. I wanted to make a note of her name because you will hear it more often and with great praise as time goes on.
Do not miss this production. It’s absolutely a tribute to the tradition of The Fantasticks many times over.
by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
The Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino
Pasadena, CA 91101
Through October 2, 2016
For tickets and information:
626 356 7529