Welsh town antes up to buy a racehorse

Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), her husband, Brian (Owen Teale, left), and Howard Davies (Damian Lewis) cheer on the racehorse they and their neighbors jointly own in Dream Horse. (Photos by Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street and Topic Studios)

If you like horses and you like Wales, Dream Horse has a lot to offer. But if you also like drama, you’ll find more of it by actually visiting Wales and taking in such impressive sights as Mount Snowdon or one of the country’s ancient castles.

Though based on the fascinating true story of a Welsh village that sponsored a racehorse named Dream Alliance, the filmmakers are too polite and easy-going to turn it into a scintillating tale. Director Euros Lyn and writer Neil McKay, both of whom have worked mainly in television, seem loathe to put either their characters or their viewers through much hassle as the film trots through its predictable paces.

The central protagonist is Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), who holds down two jobs and looks after her aging parents while her unemployed husband, Brian (Owen Teale), mostly lolls in front of the TV. Not surprisingly, Jan is a bit dissatisfied with her existence. So when a bar patron named Howard Davies (Homeland’s Damian Lewis) tells her about the practice of forming a syndicate to own a racehorse, she gloms onto the idea.

In no time, she’s passing out fliers and calling a town meeting for anyone who wants to ante up a few pounds for the chance to make a few more pounds. At first it seems like no one will show up, but then a whole bunch of people show up—only to be left in darkness as the electricity cuts out. No problem. Someone just drops a few coins in the meter and they’re off, literally, to the races.

The meeting largely sets the pattern for the rest of the film: Problems arise, only to be solved with a minimum of complications or surprises. The result could be called a feel-good movie, if you don’t mind also feeling a little bored.

Jan (Toni Collette) and Dream Alliance share a post-race moment.

The story really should have been more interesting, as it involves a frankly risky venture: The syndicate members have to buy a mare, mate her to a talented sire and hope she gives birth to an equally talented offspring.

One reason the flick doesn’t live up to its potential is that we don’t know enough about most of the characters to understand why they’re willing to take the chance. Since they live in a former mining town, it would seem logical that they need a new source of income, but we mostly get the sense that they simply want an escape from their everyday routines.

The same goes for the two characters we do know something about: Jan and Howard. Jan, as stated, is bored with her life and marriage, while Howard longs to escape from his humdrum job as a tax accountant. Actors Collette and Lewis are capable of creating interesting and complex characters, but here they’re never given the chance. (Their Welsh accents are impeccable, though.)

If there’s one thing that helps to make up for the film’s lack of drama, it’s the musical soundtrack. The action is regularly punctuated with uplifting ballads, the most uplifting of all being the Welsh national anthem, which is sung lustily prior to a key race.

Even more fun is the song that accompanies the closing credits. Paying homage to the country’s patron saint of pop music, the cast takes turns singing the Tom Jones hit “Delilah.” It’s an irresistible moment, one of the few in this good-natured but uninspired telling of what should have been an inspiring tale.

(Note: The real-life story of Dream Alliance was told earlier—and, by some accounts, better—in Louise Osmond’s 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance. It is available through YouTube and other VOD outlets.)

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Dream Horse opens May 21 in theaters nationwide, including Central Ohio’s AMC Easton Towne Center 30, Cinemark Movies 16-Gahanna, Cinemark Polaris 18, Crosswoods 17 and Pickerington 17. It will be available through VOD outlets beginning June 11.

Musical takes young lovers on ‘fantastick’ voyage

Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)
Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)

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.