24
Sep
12

The Fantasticks

The Fantasticks

Noosa Arts Theatre

September 20th – October 6th 2012

 

“Teaching the world about youthful love…”

 

Away from the flashy expense and soullessness of the blockbuster musicals (that we love!), is the world’s longest running musical. I’m fascinated by this show’s history and intrigued by the fact that no one I spoke to about The Fantasticks, when Noosa Arts Theatre announced its inclusion in their 2012 season, knew much – if anything – about this beautiful little show.

So by all means, skip straight to my review, below, or bear with me while I share a brief history, from fantasticksonbroadway.com on the inception and long-term success of The Fantasticks.

In the early 1950’s Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones were students at the University of Texas. During their senior year in 1955, they became so enchanted with the works of French playwright, Edmond Rostand, which they read and re-read his three most famous plays and then began to search for others. From Rostand’s biography, Schmidt and Jones learned of another play – the first ever written by Rostand when he was 26 years old in 1894. Finding no copies anywhere of the mentioned play, they sent to a rare-book dealer in Paris, who unearthed a copy in French. Their one single impulse was to turn this tender little tale into a modern musical.

After graduation, Schmidt and Jones descended upon New York and began writing material for little musical reviews and nightclub entertainers. They didn’t get around to fulfilling their college dream until 1959, when The Fantasticks had a tryout at Barnard College to an enthusiastic audience. A few months later the show was produced in New York and the rest is history.

The Fantasticks tells a simple tale of “a boy, girl, two fathers and a wall.” Using theatrical techniques from many parts of the world and many periods in history, it urges the audience to use their imagination, to follow the narrator, El Gallo, as he creates for us a world of moonlight and magic, and later of honky-tonk carnivals and burning disillusion.

The Fantasticks, as LIFE magazine once said, is “a sophisticated story about innocence.”

The Review…

The Fantasticks premiered at The Sullivan Theatre on May 3rd 1960 and ran for 17 162 performances before closing in January 2002. The current revival at The Snapple Theatre (renamed the Jerry Orbach Theatre) is directed by the show’s playwright and lyricist, Tom Jones and stars pop sensation, Aaron Carter, in the role of Matt.

Ian Mackellar played Matt in a production some years ago and the show has always held a special place in his heart. (The Fantasticks seems to have this effect on those involved in it!). This time Mackellar directs – very precisely – and plays Luisa’s father. Mackellar stepped into this role just a few weeks ago, to team up with John Woodlock, who plays Matt’s father. Together these gentlemen very nearly steal the show. Their final duet particularly, is one to look forward to.

John Woodlock & Ian Mackellar The Fantasticks

As Director, Mackellar has done a stellar job. He imbues The Fantasticks with all the love he has for this show and for musical theatre and storytelling. The storytelling is key. We are asked at the outset to indulge the players and put our imaginations to good use. It sounds like a big call and it is. If it were not for the ingeniously (deceptively) simple staging and the deft efficiency of Carly Partridge as The Mute, it would be an almost impossible ask. Partridge magically procures props and costumes from out of nowhere at the precise moment each is needed. She establishes her quiet authority and maintains an air of all-knowing, all-seeing puppet master (but who is pulling her strings?). She is omnipresent and she knows the show back to front and inside out; very little would happen without her.

Sam Coward is a wonderful El Gallo. And I’m not even biased. In fact, I’m probably his biggest critic. In this role, Coward is in fine voice and takes seriously his responsibility to invoke our imaginations from the outset. He finds just the right amount of sensitivity and swashbuckling, mischievous charm to woo and slightly terrify. His rendition of Try to Remember gently draws us in before he hints at any of the horrors of the world. His duet with Matt (He Can See It) is disturbing and loathsome in its foreboding, prophetic nature. The latter is a highlight that comes in stark contrast to the opening number, another highlight, which is suitably warm, welcoming, and full of the promise of life (and a good story to boot!).

You would think that living with the man would have proffered some production clues, gossip, something, anything…but no; I took our six year old daughter, Poppy, to see the opening night performance having heard Try to Remember sung in the shower just once or twice and I guess from the bathroom renditions we were both expecting great things. Happily, no one was disappointed and in fact the common cry over Chandon after the show was, “Why do we not hear this voice more often?” and “Why is this man not on stage more often?” (I said the same thing about Mackellar.)… Coward has focused on directing and producing for a little while, as you would know if you’ve been following this blog; this is his first role onstage since SRT’s Short+Sweet winner, So, Where Is It? Perhaps we’ll see him in a musical again sometime soon since he’s suddenly remembered he can sing.

Sam Coward & Rachel Halverson The Fantasticks

This is Sam’s glare because I’ve overshared.

We knew Stephen Moore would present hilariously and along with his sidekick, the silent Mortimer, played by newcomer Mal Farvar, he provides a lot of the comic relief.

The young lovers each reveal some good character work and a subtlety that Mackellar told me was honed during rehearsals as they imagined they were acting for camera. As Luisa, Rachel Halverson is sweet, naïve and thrust into love and confusion. She can afford to sing out a little more with such a beautiful, natural voice, reminding me of Sweeney Todd’s Johanna. The keyboards (one a keyboard, one a keyboard masquerading as a harp) could also do with a fuller sound or simply slightly more volume. Without overpowering the voices, as so often happens – still – in community theatre venues, it might help the younger singers. Callum Hamacek is love-struck and brave and foolish (and humbly forlorn and defeated) as Matt. They are delightful, completely convincing, establishing a beautiful connection early in the piece, which helps us go with them on their journey. The couple’s final duet is simple and quite simply, captivating.

The Fantasticks is a rather old-fashioned, whimsical musical yet it manages to retain its relevance and is very much to be enjoyed by the whole family. On opening night it ran at a languid pace, however; I’ve been told it has since picked up and audiences of all ages have delighted in the opening weekend.

The paragraph that doesn’t fit…

In The Fantasticks El Gallo is employed to “rape” Luisa and it is explained, painstakingly, that this simply means he will pretend to abduct her. ie. he will stage a kidnapping.

I have to discuss this. It’s played heavily on my mind since seeing the show. Rape. Rape. RAPE. What does that word mean to you? Does it imply abduction without sexual contact? No. It does not. Not anymore. The very sound of the word – go on, say it out loud – implies violence, aggression, gross abuse of power against a person and grave injustice. Why? Because that is how we have come to know the word. It’s the word we have used often enough for long enough now to describe the act of sexual violence and disempowerment over one person by another. Call a rape an abduction and it does not smell sweeter. The archaic definition is the one that is used in the show and though it is explained in the scene, it doesn’t seem to me to be an acceptable inclusion these days. How do the schools deal? Do they cut the scene and later replace the word “rape” for “abduction” or another? I watched audience members squirming and audience members trying not to be seen squirming during this scene because, after all, regardless of what they were feeling, hadn’t the term just been contexualised by El Gallo? (Who would dare to question El Gallo?)!

Luckily, the scene occurs early enough for some to forget it entirely but for those who don’t, for those who think on it later, it’s a tricky issue. What would you do?

rape

noun

1.   the unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse.

 2.   any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.

 3.   statutory rape.

 4.   an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation: the rape of the countryside.

 5.   Archaic . the act of seizing and carrying off by force.

verb (used with object

6.   to force to have sexual intercourse.

 7.   to plunder (a place); despoil.

 8.   to seize, take, or carry off by force.

verb (used without object)

9. to commit rape.

Origin:

1250–1300;  (v.) Middle English rapen  < Anglo-French raper  < Latin rapere  to seize, carry off by force, plunder; (noun) Middle English  < Anglo-French ra ( a ) p ( e ), derivative of raper

Now, after that note, you may have second thoughts about taking the children but I say take them and discuss. Children, just as adults do, take in what they take in and leave with their own thoughts, feelings and unique responses to what they’ve seen. What is theatre if it’s not for challenging us, urging us to re-think long-held beliefs and core community values? And what is its worth if we can’t update it to make it relevant and tell our age-old stories in entirely new ways if necessary, in order to reach entirely new audiences? This is an age-old tale told very simply and it requires a simple rewrite.

The Fantasticks contains darker moments because life contains darker moments. G.K Chesterton said that fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. With so much of the English language undergoing similar change, I think it far better to discuss the issue, contexualising it each time something comes up.

Try to Remember, regardless of how we respond to the rape/abduction notion, this is the world’s longest running musical! Of course it should continue to be seen and enjoyed.

The update/note…

After the Sunday matinee, Director, Ian Mackellar, decided to change the word “rape” to “raid”, having received enough feedback from cast members and audience about its contextualisation, to reconsider the inclusion of the word. He felt the word was not being accepted for the reasons discussed above. So now you can happily take the kids and know that there is one less worldly issue to discuss (don’t put off that conversation for too long though!).

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2 Responses to “The Fantasticks”


  1. 1 Margart Courtney
    September 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Well done Xanthe. A very fair review and it is good that the word is now being changed. Everyone will be happy!

  2. 2 Rae Smart
    October 8, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Thank you for taking the stand on the word RAPE. We need to call it as it is. Another tick on the language misuse to be sensitized by an Author. And roses to the Ian Mackellar for heeding the message.


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