Monday, October 18, 2010

The Fantasticks

My review of The Fantasticks appears in this week's WE.

THE FANTASTIKS

The Fantasticks is the longest-running musical of all time. Staged Off Broadway for 42 years, from 1960 to 2002, it was revived in 2006 and continues on to this day. And yet, having finally seen this theatrical mainstay, in the form of Vancouver Playhouse’s season opener, the resounding question I’m left with is “Why?” Why has this trifling endeavour endured? Mediocrity, thy reward is ever-lasting life — at least on stage.

Loosely based on the Roman myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, the action centres around two supposedly star-crossed lovers. Luisa (Bree Greig) and Matt (Colin Sheen) are basking in the glow of what they think is forbidden love. In reality, their fathers, Hucklebee (Mark Burgess) and Bellomy (Andy Toth), have built a wall between their properties and staged a long-standing feud to coerce the pair into marriage (because teens can’t help but do the opposite of what they’re told).

As if these contrivances weren’t enough, the last step in the fathers’ plan is to facilitate a reconciliation between their families by employing dashing and devious Spaniard El Gallo (Steve Maddock) to fake-kidnap Luisa with his two hired guns, over-the-hill and over-the-top theatre actors Mortimer (Simon Bradbury) and Henry (Christopher Gaze). The hope is that Matt will fight for Luisa’s honour, thereby becoming her hero.

Despite the efforts of a worthy cast, the Playhouse’s production proves oddly lifeless and flat. The convoluted book and lyrics by Tom Jones don’t help the cause any, but a good part of the problem here is the odd staging. Most of the action is confined to a 10-by-10-foot raised space in front of a background littered with fascinating props (like a merry-go-round horse) that have absolutely no context. But the worst aspect — at least from my seat in tenth row, stage left — was poor lighting that left the actors in shadows no matter where they stood.

The production’s one bright spot is Gaze, whose hammy thespian character literally demands the spotlight every time he appears onstage. In addition to being well-lit, he steals every scene, and his scenery-chewing as a slightly loopy, aging Shakespearean actor earns the biggest laughs (the in-joke here being that Gaze is the founding artistic director of Bard on the Beach). The rest of the performances fail to stir much in the way of response, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the actors. The show’s lengthy Off Broadway success isn’t indicative of its musical superiority — rather the opposite. The Fantasticks is the theatrical equivalent of a Twinkie: Just because you can still eat it after five decades, that doesn’t mean you should.

The Fantasticks runs to Oct. 23 at Playhouse Theatre (Hamilton at Dunsmuir), 8pm. Matinees: Wed & Sat, 2pm. $32-$59 from 604-873-3311 and VancouverPlayhouse.com

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