Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Dec 18, 2013
09:30 AMStage Write
Reminders of a Simpler Time in Four Seasons' 'The Fantasticks'
Most of us don’t have to try very hard to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow—given that The Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s nostalgia- and romance-soaked musical, has been around for more than five decades now, chances are good you’ve experienced its sunny charms at least once in your life. It’s the kind of show where people sing at length about how it’s going to rain instead of the fact that it’s actually raining, where everyone clings to a wide-eyed view of the world and young love, of course, triumphs over all.
Four Seasons Theatre’s staging (running through December 22 in the Overture Center Playhouse) captures all of that and more. Under the direction of Jace Nichols, who’s performing in the show for the third time in his career, the show is like a confident love letter to a classic work.
Like the show’s staging, the story’s pretty simple. A pair of bowler-wearing, next-door neighbor dads (John Jajewski and Robert A. Goderich) manipulate their kids into falling in love with each other by contriving to keep them apart. The path to a happy ending for Matt (Trevor Bass) and Luisa (Anna Slate) takes some fairly ridiculous turns, and the cast is great at selling the comic lines.
And there’s plenty of slapstick here: The smiling shuck and jive Jajewski and Goderich serve up when they sing songs (“Never Say No,” “Plant a Radish”) packed with, um, parenting wisdom, is hysterical. Mark Snowden and David Lawver are hilarious as the pair of bumbling actors who engineer Luisa’s fake abduction. Snowden’s especially adept at bungling the lines of famous plays.
The Fantasticks may be simple, but its songbook requires some fairly serious vocal gymnastics, and Slate and Bass prove more than up to the task. Their actual on-stage chemistry isn’t quite as passionate as you might expect or hope for, but their voices wrap around each other like they were meant to be together, and that’s more than enough. Slate’s particularly effective at selling her role as a wide-eyed innocent—she plays it as broadly as possible.
Nichols’s set design takes a turn on sparse street—there’s a raised platform, and the rest of the universe emerges as props from a box at the forefront of the stage. As El Gallo, Nichols’s baritone is confident and smooth, and he does a nice job of playing to the crowd as it’s needed. He’s equally compelling as a world-weary narrator and cunning, sleazy villain.
I salute Four Seasons’ interest in remaining faithful to the original 1960s script, but no amount of explanation or contortion—not even bringing out an actual copy of Merriam-Webster’s on stage and the cautionary word in the program warns viewers it’s coming—can assuage the jarring nature of “It Depends on What You Pay.” Just like it’s hard to watch Disney’s Peter Pan today without wincing at the scenes with the Indian tribes, it’s hard to watch three guys high-stepping around the stage singing about the rape emphatic and literary. It’s not like the song disrupts the play’s sunny and playful vibe, but it makes for an uncomfortable ten minutes. Luckliy, there’s an entire second act to erase the discomfort.
By the time Matt and Luisa are reunited and launch into the achingly beautiful “They Were You,” your heart’s probably pooled in a puddle on the floor. It may be deep in December, but they’ve made sure our hearts remember what it’s like to be bruised by the world… and still find love.
(Editor’s note: Due to scheduling conflicts, we reviewed the preview performance of The Fantasticks on Thursday, December 12)