By Richard Ades
The Fantasticks is a subtle, tricky work that deals in mood and feeling rather than plot. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that the original off-Broadway production made it the world’s longest-running musical.
How did it happen? The biggest factor is likely Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s gorgeous music, beginning with the show-opening Try to Remember. It establishes a sad, wistful tone that colors everything that follows—that is, unless the actors break the spell by mishandling the subsequent forays into silliness and cynicism.
At Otterbein, director David Caldwell leads a production that gets just about everything right.
Sam Parker speaks simply and sings beautifully as El Gallo, the narrator who comes to play a pivotal role in the lives of the young central characters, Matt and Luisa.
Growing up next to each other but separated by a wall erected by their fathers, the two have fallen in love. Or have they simply fallen in love with the idea of falling in love? Truthfully, Matt and Luisa are so filled with youthful optimism and romantic notions that they have little understanding of how the world really works.
Before El Gallo is done with them, that will all change.
Natalie Szczerba imbues the teenaged Luisa with an exalted sense of her own specialness and an operatically soaring voice. As Matt, Preston Pounds is slightly more limited vocally, but he sells us on the young man’s passionate approach to Luisa and everything else.
Alex Huffman and Kyle Hansen give lightly comic turns as the pair’s fathers, who are not as opposed to the developing romance as they’ve let on. In fact, they conspire with El Gallo and itinerant actors Henry and Mortimer to concoct a way to push them together.
As Henry, Jeff Gise at first struggles to give a believable impersonation of old age, but he grows more effective as the show goes on. As Mortimer, a faux Native American who specializes in death scenes, Anthony Cason gives the show’s funniest performance.
Oddly, one of the production’s most expressive performances is delivered by Ian Taylor as the aptly named Mute, who silently portrays the wall and otherwise makes himself useful throughout.
Rob Johnson’s scenery is minimal, as is traditional. Andy Baker’s lighting design is handsome and dramatic.
Accompanying the singers from positions on opposite sides of the stage are music director/pianist Dennis Davenport and harpist James Predovich. Predovich’s playing is lovely, while Davenport’s keyboard work is extraordinary.
How did The Fantasticks attain its legendary popularity? Now that I’ve seen Otterbein’s production, the feat is a bit easier to understand.
Otterbein Summer Theatre will present The Fantasticks through June 21 in the Fritsche Theatre, Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. this Friday (June 13). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.