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Theater Reviews : 'Fantasticks': Major Fun, Minimal Fuss

October 11, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

YORBA LINDA — Try to remember when simple yet universal ideas launched musicals. In 1960, long before the Goliaths staged their ruthless takeover of the musical industry, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's "The Fantasticks" not only demonstrated that non-Broadway theater was where the vitality was, but it did so with the sparest of means. A few boards, some lights, archetypal characters rather than psychodrama creations, an (adult) fairy tale-style narrative--that was it.

Well, not quite. "The Fantasticks" also has one of musical theater's most brilliantly expressive scores (care of Schmidt) and a rock-solid resistance to romantic illusion (care of Jones). It is just about everything, in other words, that musical theater (outside of Sondheim) is not anymore.

It also is a fine choice for a civic light opera company not exactly flush with cash but able to draw talented singers--a fair description of the Yorba Linda Civic Light Opera, and, at the Forum Theatre, director Susan Boulanger's cast delivers a truly impassioned reading of this tale-with-music.

Jones' book first establishes your basic Romeo and Juliet romance between Matt (Jonas Edwin Sills) and Luisa (Robin Cox), which actually has been orchestrated by their fathers (Glenn Stromberg and Dan Stroud). To seal the match even more securely, the dads--with the help of the enigmatically amoral figure El Gallo (Richard Gary Rodgers)--stage a rape attempt on Luisa, so Matt can rescue her.

I know people who can't watch or listen to "The Fantasticks" because of both the rape plan (sung in the tasteless "It Depends On What You Pay") and the rape attempt. Rape has lost its literary pedigree since 1960 and, even though this rape business is so comically stylized, down to its title ("The Rape Ballet"), that it can't be taken seriously, the section stops "The Fantasticks" short of real greatness.

However, this is a strong enough revival (blessed with Patrick Flanagan and DonEl Lincoln as the attackers, as well as in other guises) that the very un-PC section doesn't pull the show down. Indeed, the play's journey into disillusion is amplified by the cast's early, comic abandon. The paper moon on Robert G. Gore's fine theater-in-a-theater set is replaced by a sun casting the harsh light of day, and the families make you feel the weight of the heat and the possible wilting of love.

Above all, what the cast makes you feel is the pure, silky richness of the music, which stylistically is right on the cusp of '50s-era tone and '60s-era brashness and beat. Musical director Joshua Carr's band, like everything else, is spare, lean and tight. Some of the singing (especially from Cox) is so strong that it can drown out the band, but it's a momentary imbalance that is nonetheless beautiful to hear. Stromberg and Stroud deliver their complex duets with the ease of two guys on the links, while Sills is all heart and soul as the lover.

The odd weakness here is Rodgers, ironically the company's Actors Equity member. His El Gallo projects a sense of the dark-minded, narrating emcee, but his voice is cold, stiff and contrastingly unsure amid this skilled ensemble. (The classic "Try to Remember," alas, is his song.)

But this is a blip on an otherwise alluring and wondrous screen, elegantly illuminated by Edward Huber's lights. Boulanger's work does justice to "The Fantasticks" in every way but one: In her program note, she erroneously notes that the show recently ended its 35-year off-Broadway engagement. In fact, it's still at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village--14,000 performances and counting.

* "The Fantasticks," Yorba Linda Forum Theatre, 4175 Fairmont Blvd., Yorba Linda. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $12-$14. (714) 779-1932. Running time: 2 hours.

Robin Cox: Luisa

Jonas Edwin Sills: Matt

Glenn Stromberg: Hucklebee

Dan Stroud: Bellomy

Richard Gary Rodgers: El Gallo

Kathleen Gilbert: The Mute

Patrick Flanagan: Henry

DonEl Lincoln: Mortimer

A Yorba Linda Civic Light Opera production of the musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, directed by Susan Boulanger. Musical direction: Joshua Carr. Set: Robert G. Gore. Lights: Edward Huber. Choreography: Jimmy Hippenstiel. Costumes: Nancy Dock.

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