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THEATER REVIEWS

Musical Spark Masks Flaws in 'The Fantasticks'

June 15, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's little chamber musical "The Fantasticks" is in its 37th year at New York's Sullivan Street Playhouse, making it the longest-running musical in the world. And there are very good reasons for it.

The fable-like plot is simplicity itself. The tunes aren't a difficult challenge to singers. Above all, it's charming and often quite funny. Director Larry Watts' energetic staging at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse shows why, in spite of a few flaws, it always works well.

Matt and Luisa have grown up next door to each other and are in love. This in spite of a long-standing feud between their fathers and a thick wall between their properties. The feud and the wall, of course, are contrivances of Luisa's father, Bellomy, and Matt's father, Hucklebee. They know perfectly well that to get young people to do what they want, just tell them they can't do it. That's the plot, and everything else is just froth.

Watts' production gets most of its sparks from the musical direction of Joey Kincer, who, at the piano, injects enough sparkle into the proceedings to mask most of the flaws. Kincer's punch even seems to give the ballads new life.

The roles don't require great acting, but they do demand dedication and honesty. James Emery's El Gallo, the narrator and sometime deus ex machina who guides the action, is laid back and cool--and very effective. His listenable baritone is just right, especially for the show's best-known number, "Try to Remember." Emery's bandit figure is not, as is usual, full of braggadocio, but he has a rewardingly sly sense of humor that works just as well.

Mindy Cowan's Luisa is a charmer, with her very correct perky voice and good looks that can change from utterly blank innocence to seduction in a flash. As her true love Matt, Jonathan Reisfeld has a perfect voice for Schmidt's melodies, but otherwise is a bit too florid and poetic for the all-American boy Matt is supposed to be.

*

The fathers need to be almost burlesque comics to work, and Robert Amberg fills the bill neatly as Hucklebee, with sharpness in his simple hoofing, vitality in his singing and a wicked wink when the action calls for it. Leon Cohen doesn't quite get that far, seeming at times almost bored with the proceedings.

James Ward is good as Henry, the out-of-date Shakespearean actor who pops out of a box in a couple of guises to spark the plot with his cliches and bombast. Shawn Batsel makes a valiant effort as his sidekick, Mortimer, but can't conquer his English accent and tends to mug much too much.

As the Mute, who hands props to the actors, acts as the wall between Matt and Luisa, and generally gives a hand, Alicia Cohen misses all the Mute's opportunities for sight gags and other funny shtick. Maybe Watts ran out of inspiration when he got to her role, which, in the right hands, has sometimes been the saving grace of "Fantasticks" revivals.

* "The Fantasticks," Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 28. $15. (949) 650-5269. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"The Fantasticks,"

Alicia Cohen: The Mute

James Emery: El Gallo

Mindy Cowan: Luisa

Jonathan Reisfeld: Matt

Robert Amberg: Hucklebee

Leon Cohen: Bellomy

James Ward: Henry

Shawn BatselMortimer

A Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse revival of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical. Produced by Pat Boldt and Randy Banks. Direction/choreography/scenic design/costumes by Larry Watts. Musical direction: Joey Kincer. Lighting design/stage manager: Robert Murphy.

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