If you can handle romance, raucous sword fights, and riffs on Shakespeare, then Stages Repertory Theatre's production of The Fantasticks is the show for you.
With a dashing villain, a beautiful girl, a love-struck boy, and a secret romance, this show creates an intense nostalgia for a simpler time when there was nothing like Tinder or Match.com. Love is rough enough, and The Fantasticks reminds us that young love is especially fraught; you must have some bruised feeling before you can appreciate the beauty and wonder of romantic connection. The show is also a little meta, pointing out its own theatricality, and a lot of fun to watch.
The Fantasticks is the first production for Stages Repertory in the impressive new Gordy Theater on their flagship Sterling Stage. Opening nights are always exciting, and even more so with a new theater; Mayor Sylvester Turner was at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for The Gordy in January—a big deal for Houston’s art scene.
Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin (also director of The Fantasticks) explained to patrons before the show that choosing this show was easy: It was part of a magical history of shows that began in their very first theater, and there was interest in a love story. How perfect to put on an all-ages (but not too juvenile) musical with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt (both Texans)? The Fantasticks has also stood the test of time. Although it's been updated through the years, McLaughlin reminded us that it, “holds the record as the longest-running play of any kind in American theater history.” Plus, it has that great song, “Try to Remember,” which opens and closes the show.
Stages’ sets are creative and memorable; the music played onstage by the excellent musicians of Aperio Presents, who partnered with the company for this production. Some of the costumes don’t seem in sync with the season onstage (who wears a white sundress in the winter?), but you must go with it.
If you haven’t seen The Fantasticks (I hadn’t before), the story is, in part, a gloss on Shakespeare's works and Romeo and Juliet in particular—the whole star-crossed lovers thing. But it is much more than that, with allusions to many of the Bard’s plays, including Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A big part of the Shakespearian Rag (parodies) of comedic moments is provided by the excellent Paul Hope (who plays The Old Actor, Henry) and his sidekick Mortimer (Ronnie Blaine) as a running subplot to the main love story. While our Juliet and Romeo, Luisa (the excellent Kiaya Scott) and Matt (Tyler Hecht), sing earnestly about the vicissitudes of young love, Henry and Mortimer are the traveling players that make you think of Hamlet and his play within a play—a perfect metafictional gesture.
All the voices are good (often great) in this production, but what also impressed me was the physical agility of this cast. From intricate choreography from Krissy Richmond, to running with scissors (okay, big hedge shears—did I mention that gardening is an important motif in this play?) to an actual tableau, everyone gives it all they’ve got in terms of pure energy. Luke Longacre (Hucklebee) and Labraska Washington (Bellomy), who play the young lovers' well-meaning but irrational fathers, have marvelous coordination when they perform together, and their numbers are no easy task.
While Stages’ production has the elements and madcap of the circus, with lots of plates spinning in the air, so to speak, I think this is some of the best direction I have seen in a long time. Everything seems to work, and this creative version of a long-running show feels fresh and edgy, even if the theme of romantic, teenage-angsty love is not so new.
But it is new the first time you experience it, and maybe that is the point of The Fantasticks. No matter who you are, if you have experienced love, this lyric work of nostalgia will stay with you for a very long time. And it won’t be hard to “Try to Remember” at all.
This story has been updated.