The Nebraska Theatre Caravan does a delightful The Fantasticks at the Eisemann Center
but is the steampunk theme really necessary?
published Saturday, February 22, 2014
Richardson — The longest running musical in history, presented by the Nebraska Theatre Caravan at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts, is, well...the name speaks for itself. The Fantasticks is famous for a reason. It’s simply one of the best musicals ever written, and NTC’s production is a delightful addition to its repertoire.
The Fantasticks, with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, is a masterful balancing act between high and low theater and comedy. It combines classic themes and scenarios with a truly avant-garde presentation. On a side note, Texans Jones and Schmidt are products of the University of Texas.
The story is simple enough. There are two houses next to each other. In one, Hucklebee (Andrew Tebo) lives with his son Matt (Peter O’Neal). In the other, Bellomy (Jon McDonald) lives with his daughter Luisa (Jennifer Tritz). A wall divides the houses as the two fathers are sworn enemies. This naturally drives their rebellious young teenagers to fall in love with each other.
There’s just one catch. This is the intention of the fathers, who are actually best friends. The feud and wall are constructed falsely with the express purpose of getting their children together. That was step one. But, what is step two? An abduction! They decide to hire someone to try and abduct Luisa so that Matt can fend him off and look like the hero. They hire El Gallo (Chad Bradford), along with his assistant The Mute (Dan Chavalier) and a couple of hapless actors, Henry (Eric Bricking) and Mortimer (Alejandro Gutierrez).
Of course, it totally works, which is where the brilliance of the show truly reveals itself. Before this story starts, there is an overture in which El Gallo and the Mute set the stage for a performance. Inspired by the traveling commedia troupes of the Renaissance, this whole thing is essentially a show within a show. So then, the first act is made to succeed in all its sugary sweet perfection.
The happy ending is not the end of this story. The second act shows the aftermath in the cold light of day. The lovers separate, the fathers actually feud and things look dismal. But, it all leads to the lesson that true happiness comes after struggle. There is no truly happy story. There must always be conflict.
Beyond that, Jones and Schmidt defied convention by taking a somewhat traditional story and not only turning the narrative on its head, but also breaking conventions of staging. The fourth wall is routinely broken; the set—typically—is minimalisitic. Also, the only musical accompaniment is a piano, charmingly played by Steven Zumbrun in this production. The show constantly winks at the audience and at itself. It knows it’s ridiculous. Delightfully ridiculous.
This production employs a fairly imposing gazebo set. It’s more than is typical for the show, but not objectionable. It works. In fact, the only part of the show that doesn’t quite work is the steampunk theme pasted over top of it. It’s unnecessary and more of a distraction than an addition. More notably, the Mute is delightful in the first act in clown white makeup and a cabbie cap. However, in the second act he dons odd brass plated armor, a big top hat banded by the typically steampunk brass goggles, and a Phantom of the Opera-style half mask made of, obviously, brass. It’s borderline frightening. And though the second act is meant to be a little darker, it’s not this dark.
The acting, beyond the costumes, is the strongest aspect of this show. Bradford’s mischievous yet sweet bass voice oozes charisma. Yet, his cunning and guile is firmly underpinned by a sharp sense of humor. He’s the heart of the show. The fathers have the kind of chemistry that would indicate they’ve been friends for years, and their numbers together dare the audience not to grin. Also, Chevalier deserves special consideration because his performance is purely physical and he performs it excellently. His presence, even without dialogue, is always felt.
Finally, Bricking and Gutierrez as the wandering actors, are the best comic relief likely seen. Bricking especially, as the washed-up Shakespearean actor, takes what could easily just be a goofy role and imbues it with a deep and thorough humor. The show is always better when he is onstage, and when Gutierrez is dying, of course. His specialty.
The Fantasticks ran for 42 years at the Sullivan Street Theater in New York for a reason. There’s something about it that is just, well, fantastic. It’s a perfect blend of high and low, of happy and sad, of comedy and drama, and it’s impossible not to feel exhilarated walking out of it. This production is no different. So follow, follow, follow to the Eisemann and see that this plum is perfectly ripe.
Review: ‘Fantasticks’ was a memorable show
The Nebraska Theatre Caravan production of the musical comedy “The Fantasticks” was two hours of pure entertainment.
The main floor of the Arts Center on the campus of Iowa Western Community College was filled with more than 300 in attendance gave the production a well-deserved standing ovation Saturday night. The Nebraska Theater Caravan is the professional touring wing of the Omaha Community Playhouse. They have performed “The Fantasticks” in many states.
The production under the direction of Carl Beck was remarkable. The cast of eight was outstanding. Chad Bradford opened the show with the beautiful song “Try to Remember.” His singing and his speaking voice was superb. The one female in the cast was Jennifer Tritz. She was beautiful with a voice to match. The story of “The Fantasticks” is about two neighbors divided by a wall. One has a son, one a daughter. The two young people fall in love thinking their dads don’t want them to have a relationship. The plot then gets complicated as well as hilarious, with abduction and some strange characters getting involved.