By Pat Launer
Moving mindfully (we tried not to beat-feet,
Since I’d just come from a Meditation retreat),
We glided from the Oscars, where ‘The Ring’ was king,
To another, more live-ly, ‘Fantastick’ thing.
So there we were, at North Coast Repertory Theatre with Kim and Jenni Prisk (you know,
That Prisk Woman and her dryly humorous spouse) and they weren’t even planning to watch the Oscars at all. Did they not know that it was New Zealand uber alles??
In my opinion, given the lack of surprises, the Billy Crystal opener was worth the price of admission (to the Launer-Pryor Home Entertainment Center). Those Zelig-like insertions crack me up. And sop that I am, I always get teary from the touching tributes to spouses and parents. There was, of course, the Costume Design winner who recalled the two live rats he gave his wife when they were both 13. but I liked the director of “Finding Nemo,” who said “I wrote it to you in a note in the 8th grade; now I can say it in front of a billion people. I love you.” I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.
I can always tolerate lots of Johnny Depp camera-time; we’d just watched him on The Actors’ Studio last week. Surprisingly self-effacing, but he looked awfully dour on Oscar night. Not much politics, thanks to the ridiculous censorship situation and the Jackson-induced 5-second delay. Billy got a few zingers in, though. And mercifully, no more media time was given to Mel Gibson; he’s already gotten much more than he deserves — of everything. ‘Nuff said on that topic. On to the theater…..
TRY TO REMEMBER…
Before I say anything about North Coast Rep’s ” Fantasticks,” I have to tell you two funny stories about prior productions. Both are For Mature Audiences Only, so you might want to invoke the 5-second reading-delay and stop your tiny tykes from looking over your shoulder.
Many years ago, when I was in a musical theater repertory company in New York, we did a small production of “The Fantasticks.” During the “This Plum is Too Ripe” scene, the Boy is supposed to say to The Girl, “Please don’t watch me while I’m eating!” During one unforgettable performance, The Boy, played by Joe Burger, said instead, “Please don’t eat me while I’m watching!” It was one of those moments that tests the straight-faced professionalism of real troupers.
I was telling the story to Rayme Sciaroni, one of the two alternating musical director/pianists for the production (the other is Cris O’Bryon) and he relayed one that rivals it. When he was at a Catholic school, the nuns couldn’t abide doing a song about Rape (really an Abduction in the show), so they thought they’d come up with an alternate monosyllabic word which would allow them to retain the number and convey the idea of a kidnapping. Ironically (and hilariously) enough, in their naiveté, the word they came up with was “Snatch.” Well, you can just imagine; try out some of the lyrics and fill in the blanks:
“You can get the — emphatic,
You can get the — polite.
You can get the — with Indians,
A truly charming sight.
You can get the — on horseback,
They all say it’s new and gay.
So you see the sort of —
Depends on what you pay.
It depends on what you pay…” etc.
Consider the possibilities……
And now, on with the show.
The longest running musical in New York history — 42 years — didn’t get particularly good reviews when it opened in New York in 1960. But then, just after the cast album was released a year later, Harry Belafonte cut a folk arrangement of “Try to Remember.” And when Ed Ames went on “The Tonight Show” and sang the same song, he brought the house down. Johnny Carson like it so much, he asked him to come back the next night and sing it again. Then Barbra Streisand recorded two of the songs on her first album. By the third year, the show (in a small, 150-seat theater, btw) was selling out. And since then, it’s been translated into multitudinous languages, performed in more than 66 countries, and there are still about 1000 productions a year world-wide.
So what’s all the excitement about? It’s a strange and offbeat little show. It creeps up on you. You have to give it time, and see it as the small-scale piece of transparent, presentational theater it is. A bittersweet story of love. If you’ve never seen it and know little about it, the show seems so small and low-budget, you just think it’s cheesy and being done on the cheap. But it’s always been presented on a bare stage that sports only a bench, a trunk and a platform with a few poles and a banner strung across with ‘The Fantasticks’ scrawled in lyricist Harvey Schmidt’s distinctive purple penmanship.
At North Coast Rep, guest director Rick Simas (Musical Theatre faculty at SDSU) hews close to the source, even engaging a harpist as written in the original instrumentation.
The theme of the piece, like all the work by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (“I Do! I Do!” “110 in the Shade,” which Simas directed two years ago at SDSU), concerns seasonal rebirth. It’s about spring turning to winter and winter spawning a new spring. It’s about the loss of innocence. In 2004, that applies at the macro- and the micro-cosmic level. Of course, it’s a coming-of-age story. The next-door-neighbor Girl and Boy are so naïve at first; they have to learn about the world to be able to experience love (“without a hurt the heart is hollow”). But on the larger scale, the show is about a simpler time in our history. Musicals were simpler then, as was life. As a country, we’ve certainly lost a lot of our innocence. And so, in watching the show, there’s nostalgia for our individual and our collective youth. I found it very touching.
The story, set any time and any place, is freely adapted from Edmond Rostand’s 1894 play, “Les Romanesques.” It concerns a Boy who falls in love with a Girl. Their parents are thrilled with the prospects of their union, but know that, children being how and what they are, if the parents sanction the marriage, the kids will automatically rebel. So the good friends build a wall between the houses, and pretend they are enemies. But then, they contrive a plot to reverse themselves, and all sorts of sorrow and sadness ensue before there can be reconciliation. Despite the abduction (which, as noted, is considered to be a mock ‘rape’) and the un-PC representation of a faux Indian, most of the first act is pretty saccharine. But don’t be put off; the life-lessons come in the second act, and are worth the wait.
The music (Schmidt) is often lovely and lyrical, and the lyrics (Jones) are poetic and clever. This production plays the comedy to the hilt, and it has a lightness that shows it’s not taking itself too too seriously. The Mute, who sets up the scene and (“Midsummer”-like) plays the wall, reacts to the players with archly raised eyebrows and provocative eyes. He also plays percussion and xylophones to excellent effect. Randall Dodge, as the dashing, hunky bandit/abductor El Gallo, has a perfectly bemused manner and an appealing baritone. Tim West is aptly over the top as Henry, the Actor-manqué; he’s terrific with both the verbal and the physical comedy. And as his sidekick, the ever-dying Indian-wannabe, Mortimer, David Radford is a bona fide hoot. The fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, are humorously played by Mark Petrich and Chris Moad, but their harmonies are not consistently in key. Golden-voiced Jill Lewis id delightful as Luisa; she has all the wide-eyed innocence of the fantasizing ingénue, and her singing is spectacular. As her paramour, Matt, Brian Maples is equally ingenuous, though not as vocally strong. Their connection is endearing.
The acting is excellent throughout but the singing is uneven, and the singers are not always in synch with the musicians. This should come together more with time. All the elements are there for a thoroughly satisfying production. Go with it and you’ll find it as Fantastickal as audiences have for nearly half a century.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through March 25.
TRIAL BY JURY
Ever been to the SDSU Design/Performance Jury? It’s a terrific experience, and it’s unique in the country. Last year was the event’s 20th anniversary, which I commemorated by making a documentary for City TV.
Now that documentary, called “Trial by Fire: The Making of a Theater Professional,” will be airing on KPBS. If you’ve ever — or never — been to the Jury, you’ll want to see the documentary. Check it out — on “Full Focus” — Thursday, March 11 at 6:30pm on KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11). You’ll see the talented and tough-skinned students defend their artistic choices in front of the public and a high-power jury that included Sean Murray, Rosina Reynolds, Tony Award-winning costume designer Judy Dolan (from UCSD), South Coast Rep artistic director Martin Benson and others. Don’t miss the show on March 11 — and try to attend the event itself on March 26… I’ll see you there.
CATS ON WHEELS
“Starlight Express” is the term for the Train-god, represented in this new touring production, by a knockout laser light-beam. There’s a Deuteronomy-type train and a Grizabella. And there’s all that symbolism and faux spirituality. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote new material for this revised version, and worked with “Full Monty” lyricist David Yazbek. The result is a much hipper show, but it’s still pretty silly plot-wise. A cross between “The Little Train that Could” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The music now samples every genre imaginable: blues, pop. Rock and roll, doo wop, rap/hip hop, country, scat and gospel. Something for everyone. The costumes are pretty wild (heavy on the codpieces and bump-grind moves for the guys). The lighting and special effects are fantastic. And the skating is amazing; the entire show, with all its funky choreography, is performed on wheels. The most exciting addition is the 3-D glasses; what a hoot! Each of the three train races (steam engine vs. diesel vs. electric trains) is created onscreen at breakneck speed, with bats, rats and other scary and not-so-scary elements coming at you at a zillion miles an hour, as if they’re gonna get right in your face. Great fun! The singing’s pretty good, too (particularly Dennis LeGree as the old steam-train, Poppa). The music and sound are LOUD (and there were some mike glitches); the orchestra is mostly electronic, with two keyboards, a bass, guitar and drums. This is a great way to introduce young kids — especially boys — to the theater. They’ll love the skate-moves on the steep half-pipes. So bring a kid to the theater; start the habit now! At the Civic Theatre, brought to us by Broadway San Diego; through March 7.
LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE
Besides getting its first real-live, onstage marriage proposal, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” has just switched to a new, local-talent cast at the Theatre in Old Town. Susan De Leon, fresh from her excellent turn in the SDSU production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” is joined by Ryan Drummond (most recently seen in XXX at Lambs Players Theatre) and direct from their new home in New York, SDSU MFA/Musical Theatre alums, Nick and Rebecca Spear. It’s great to have local talent in a long-running, for-profit show. Bravo, Old Town!
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Macbeth” — just as dark, spooky, intense and supernatural as you’d expect from Sledgehammer; it doesn’t disappoint. At St. Cecilia’s through March 21
“Fully Committed” — a spectacular tour de force by David McBean; he’s a knockout: 40 characters, accents, dialects, humor, pathos — and a whole lot more! At Cygnet Theatre, EXTENDED through March 7
Well, this election is over… now it’s time to dig in and start working for the Big One. We all need to do our parts; our lives and livelihoods depend on it. This is REAL high drama….
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.