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Fresno troupe brings 'Fantasticks' to Severance Theatre

By Donald Munro
The Fresno Bee, Friday, March 27, 2009

Even if you don't know the story of "The Fantasticks," chances are you've heard the line from its most famous song: "Try to remember the kind of September / When life was slow and oh, so mellow."

But perhaps the best-known aspect of the show is how long it ran off-Broadway, where it opened in 1960. When it closed in New York in 2002, it had played for a record-setting 17,162 performances. "The Phantom of the Opera" has a long way to go before it comes close.

We caught up with Jeff White, director of the new Artists' Repertory Theatre production opening today at the Severance Theatre, via e-mail to get his thoughts on the show.

Amy E. Bolton and
M. Justin Red star in the Artists' Repertory Theatre production of the long-running off-Broadway show
"The Fantasticks."

Question: What's the show about?

Answer: It's a story about two young people who fall in love and, with an idealistic "grass is greener" attitude, decide to part ways. After discovering that the world isn't the picture of perfection that they thought it was, the lovers return to each other with a new, realistic view of love and life. I believe at the base of it all that it is a fun, lighthearted musical about the first time we fell in love and realized that love wasn't going to be as perfect as our childhood fairy tale books led us to believe it was, but that happens to be better.

"The Fantasticks" seemed to run forever in New York . Why do you think that's the case?

It's based on an ancient fable that stands the test of time and highlights the basic human desire to love and be loved. The music itself is fun, catchy and well sculpted. This musical allows the audience to feel as though they are a part of the show while still being able to peer into other people's lives.

Would you describe your interpretation as a traditional rendition?

This show was first produced in the '50s with a very bare-bones concept. The original director not only did not try to hide the mechanism of theater, he embraced it and made it part of the show ... and we intend to do the same.

What are some of the underlying themes in the play that you hope audiences will recognize?

Let me start off by saying that the possible interpretations of the themes in this show are endless. However, for me, some of the key themes that pop up in relation to my life are: love, family, gender roles in society, and how pain can be a necessary tool in our human growth. My hope is that you as an audience will come and find some of your own themes that might be hiding amongst the lofty songs and witty dialogue of this simple yet complex show.

I know that you're very interested in the physical look of a show. Did you design the sets for "Fantasticks"? How will you use the Severance space?

Yes, I tend to be a very visual person and the environment of the space is very important to me. In an arena space like Severance the set is the first thing the audience sees when they walk in to the theater. It sets the frame work for the show as well as facilitating the actors and directors sense of location. For this show I took the concepts that the writers had writing into the stage directions of a very neutral set reminiscent of commedia style performance. The set is a blank canvas for the actors to perform on. As people walk into the space they will notice some bare wood plank platforms surrounded on three sides by the audience seating in a three quarter trust configuration. My hope is that this will help the audience feel part of the show as if this were a group of traveling players that just set up their make shift stage for a street performance. The space will lie dormant until the actors bring it to life.

(l-r) Diane Engln, Greg Ruud, M. Justin Red, Amy Bolton, and Joe Ozier

Talk about your cast for this show.

We have an exciting cast for this show with a good mix of newcomers and old timers. There are a couple of veteran ART performers and some folks who will be performing with us for the first time, all of which all very hard working seasoned performers:

  • El Gallo: The Narrator is played by M Justin Red who is an ART regular last seen in "All In The Timing Too" and cousin Eddie in "The Rocky Horror Show"

  • Luisa: Amy Bolton, our ingénue, a Madera native has just returned from a two year stint at the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Santa Maria where she's had a chance to hone her performing skills. We are so excited to have her in this production and her first ART show.

  • Matt: Tyson Pyles plays our leading male, although he is our youngest cast member Tyson is no stranger to the stage. If you caught Clovis East's production of "The Titanic" this year you would have seen his powerful portrayal of the boiler room operator. Tyson is another ART newbie and a real hard worker on stage.

  • Huckelbee (Matt's Father): Randy Stump is a veteran to Fresno theater, he has performed at Roger Rocka's, Second Space, Center Stage, Fresno State, among others and has the been a founding member of two local theater companies in the past. His first show with ART was "All In The Timing Too" where he delivered a knee slapping performance as the Lindbergh Baby in "Mere Mortals." Randy's impeccable comic timing and razor sharp wit makes him a perfect member of "The Fantasticks" team.

  • Bellamy (Luisa's Father): Joe Ozier is recently returning to Fresno after spending the last ten years performing in Florida . We are happy to have him part of the team in his first ART production.

  • Henry: Greg Ruud masterfully plays "the ol Shakespearian player" in our production. He is also a veteran to Fresno theatre; he most recently played Marley among other characters in Second Space's "A Christmas Carol." ART welcomes his experience and talent in his first production with us.

  • Mortimer (Henry's sidekick): We are lucky to have Tony Thammavongsa for the highly comedic and very physical role of Mortimer (wait till you see him die). You might recognize Tony from CMT's production of "Sweeny Todd" last summer, or as Slightly in MTF's production of "Peter Pan" both of which were bang up performances. Tony is another welcomed addition to the ART team.

  • The Mute: Diane Engeln plays this silent yet vital character, with the kind of grace and poise that only she can bring to the stage. She is a seasoned dancer and performer who spent many years dancing with The Portable Dance Troup, and was also seen on the ART stage as one of the rockin' back up dancers in "The Rocky Horror Show." Diane's honed movement skills help bring "The Mute" to life.

    Last, but not least, we have a fabulous live band made up of a trio seasoned of musicians:
  • First we have Nate Butler as our musical director and show's bassist. You might remember Nate as the effervescent bass player from "The Rocky Horror Show", and also perhaps as the evil Captain Hook in MTF's production of "Peter Pan".

  • On drums we have a very experienced local talent: Michael Faeth.

  • St. Joseph Phao, one of the piano instructors at Cal-Arts is our very talented and dedicated Pianist.

This show is described as a fable. As a director, what does that mean to you?

"The Fantasticks" is essentially a re-telling of a roman fable, "Pyramus and Thisbe" which also is the base story for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and later Edmond Rostand's "Les Romanesques." As a fable, this story has been passed down through time for different generations to enjoy and interpret for the lessons that best suit their times and society. Although "The Fantasticks" was created in the fifties, and some of our society's ideals have changed in the last sixty years, I'm sure the audience will be able to find something in the story that will relate to them, because any good fable stands the test of time.

I know that after September 11, the show seemed to take on added poignancy because of the lyrics of "Try to Remember" and its reference to September. Do you think that the World Trade Center incident has inadvertently added another layer of meaning to the show?

(l-r) Diane Engln,
M. Justin Red, and
Amy Bolton

I think any good story will have the ability to adapt to its surroundings as well as local or global events. Although I believe nobody in this country has forgotten 9/11, I imagine that our present state of economy might be a little stronger them in peoples minds as they watch the show. I think songs like "Try to Remember" and "Soon it's Gonna Rain" might also be able to relate to our recent economic strife. No matter what you connect to in this show there are many thought provoking connections to the story and songs in this musical.

Anything else you'd like people to know about this production?

At the base of it all; themes and messages however simple or complex, the point of this show is to have fun. So please, take a break from your busy world and help make this fun little story a night to remember

"The Fantasticks," through April 19. Severance Theatre, 1401 N. Wishon Ave. (559) 222-6539, brownpapertickets.com/event/44562. $15-$25, $10-$20 students and seniors.

The reporter can be reached at dmunro@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373. Read his blog at fresno beehive.com/author/donald_munro.

"The Fantasticks"

"By Donald Munro
The Fresno Bee, March 31, 2009

Here's the easy-to-remember version: I don't much care for "The Fantasticks."

Before I watched the Actors' Repertory Theatre stage production at the Severance Theatre, the only version I'd seen of the world's longest running musical -- it opened in New York only slightly after the dinosaurs died, finally closing in 2002 before reopening in yet another run that continues to this day -- was a slick 1995 film version starring Joel Grey on DVD. I'd been decidedly ho-hum about that experience, and I can say the same thing after watching the admittedly competent and assured production that the ART folks have put together.

Amy Bolton as Luisa and
M. Justin Red as El Gallo
in A.R.T.'s production of
"The Fantasticks"

To me, "The Fantasticks" (playing through April 19) is a show that has one amazing blockbuster song ("Try to Remember," as reliable as onions in the tear-provoking department) and a lot of bluster. Its small-scale charm and simplicity wear well for 20 minutes or so, then grow stale. Many of the songs themselves come across as tinny and tuneless. My suspicion is that the show became famous for running a long time not because it's such an exceptional evening of theater but that it, well, managed to run a long time. In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Director Jeff White's cast and live three-piece band make an ardent effort, however, to find the magic in the material. White's casting is excellent. A vibrant Amy Bolton plays Luisia, The Girl. Clad in a yellow jumper and sporting a disposition seemingly washed by the sun, she plays younger than her years with an innocence and charm that never seems cloying.

Cast opposite her as Matt, The Boy, is a highly appealing Tyson Pyles. He doesn't have to try to play young -- as a senior at Clovis East High School , he IS young. But as he and Bolton wind through the story, it's clear that Pyles -- with the look of a leading man and an infectious enthusiasm for the material -- already has developed a strong stage presence.

All that brightness from the leading couple, of course, is destined to be diminished once we start churning through the story, which involves their respective fathers trying to manipulate their children into marrying each other. (The dads built the wall because everyone knows children don't listen to their parents.) When the two fathers (played by Randy Stump and Joe Ozier) set up an elaborate scheme to further encourage the match -- they hire actors to stage a "rape" (really an abduction) scene -- the tone of the play turns darker.

(About that "Rape Ballet" sequence: It's my understanding that the current revival of the show in New York uses updated language. I'm not sure if this production followed the old script or the newer one, and I'm usually all for sticking to original source material, but the repeated use of the word "rape" in this show seems not so much offensive -- although I do see the potential for that if an audience member has had personal experience -- as old and musty.)

"The Fantasticks" is based on an old Roman fable, "Pyramus and Thisbe." Coincidentally, the night after I watched "The Fantasticks" I saw Fresno State's "Tales from Ovid," also based on a Roman tale (which in itself was based on ancient Greek myths). The "Ovid" material was in many ways much darker than "The Fantasticks," but it also felt more bracingly truthful -- as if it weren't afraid of delving into the highs and lows of human nature. "The Fantasticks," meanwhile, is skittish and silly about its complexities, coating its deceit and bad will (a father hiring an actor to frighten his daughter?) with a saccharine layer of song and silliness.

Once you get past the slightness of the show, there's charm to find in the ART production, from White's minimalist set design and impromptu, pennant-adorned sensibility to Debora Bolen's costumes. M. Justin Red, as El Gallo, the narrator, is effective. He does a pretty good job of speak-singing through many of his songs, and while his "Try to Remember" might not have the vocal quality that some might expect, it's a touching rendition. More important, however, Red has nice, warm rapport with the audience with the right hint of devilishness.

Other nice moments come from The Mute, played by a physically expressive Diane Engeln; Greg Ruud as the blustery Henry (The Actor); and a scampering Tony Thammavongsa as Mortimer.

Still, I couldn't help but feel that when the time comes to sing -- and this is a musical, after all -- the show loses some of its connection. The vocals and live accompaniment never fill the hall, and the thin melodies tend to wisp away. I'm not sure if this is ultimately the fault of the direction, production concept or the material, but I'm voting for the material. If it weren't for that one song, I'm pretty sure that no one would ever remember "The Fantasticks."

The reporter can be reached at dmunro@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373. Read his blog at fresno beehive.com/author/donald_munro.

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