Musical Theatre at Soulpepper: Fantastick!

krystin pellerin & jeff lillico
photo by cylla von tiedemann

The quickest cure for the February blahs that I can think of is a sojourn down to Soulpepper Theatre to see Joseph Ziegler’s sweet and lovely production of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks, which plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 24, 2011.

Significantly less iconic than Phantom of the Opera (1988) or Cats (1982) The Fantasticks actually holds the record for being the longest running musical in the world. It opened Off-Broadway in 1960 and ran there at the Sullivan Street Playhouse until 2002. Four years later a revival production opened off Broadway at the Snapple Theatre Centre where it is still playing. The Fantasticks is loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s play Les Romanesques, but also includes aspects borrowed from Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. The story follows young lovers Matt and Luisa who believe that their romance has been forbidden by their feuding families. In reality, however, the feud is part of an elaborate scheme by their fathers, who have wanted their children (and their gardens) to be joined since they were born. Now that Luisa and Matt have come of age, the fathers hire a crew of actors to pretend to be bandits trying to abduct Luisa, so that Matt can save her heroically and dispel the feud leaving them all to end happily ever after. Yet, when Matt and Luisa discover their romantic star-crossed story is a sham, they reject one another for the adventures of an unconquered world.
Tom Jones finds an enchanting balance between cynicism and sentiment for this musical, allowing for the character of “The Old Actor” to comment wryly, but never sardonically, on the action as it unfolds. The result is a sweet homage to the wholesome and naively quixotic musicals of the past that also confronts a darker, seedier and sadder reality without compromising the chance for a happy ending. The music is lovely and melodic, simple in a comforting, homey sort of way. The stand outs are the show’s most well known, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “Try to Remember,” songs to leave you humming long after having left the theatre.
Joseph Ziegler’s production at Soulpepper does not have the same glossy finish that gives many pieces of musical theatre its polish, but it seems appropriate that the musical with the cardboard moon/sun, that owes so much of its comedy to its tickle trunk filled with Vaudevillians, should give the appearance of being a musical within a play. It is also incredible to watch this musical as performed by a cast where each one has such brilliant and succinct mastery of the craft of acting, as suddenly, amid the cardboard moon, these characters, that could very easily be played simply as stereotypes of the genre, gain depth and spring to life as they would in a play.
William Webster and Michael Hanrahan, for example, play the two fathers, Bellamy and Hucklebee respectively, and they are not perfect dancers, yet this gives their performance an added sense of authenticity, for they dance together not as Broadway dancers, but rather as two fathers and friends who were gardeners might. Derek Boyes is mute throughout the show, representing the Wall that is built to separate the two houses, and he proves that often it takes little more than a glance to express precisely the heart of the matter. Albert Schultz is charming and tender as the (Not Actually) “Old Actor” and sings a beautiful rendition of “Try to Remember,” but it is in the suave, sexy, villainous Zorro-like bandit, El Gallo, that Schultz, in all of his rollicking silliness, truly shines. Krystin Pellerin is the ultimate ingénue as Luisa, melodramatic and fanciful, innocent, but fraught with wild and romantic daydreams. As the play progresses we see her becoming less absorbed in her own desires and increasingly aware of the world and the other people surrounding her. There is an innate sweetness and goodness at the core of Pellerin’s Luisa, which makes her immediately endearing, despite her faults. She sings in a lovely, light, soprano voice, which suits Luisa very nicely. Jeff Lillico plays Matt, a bit of a reluctant hero, smart and usually sensible; he becomes the most battered and bruised by the world (depicted in a carnival-like fantasy sequence between Luisa and El Gallo, which is slightly disturbing and reminiscent of a sort of nightmarish ride on merry-go-round). Lillico gives a reserved, but still charismatic performance, and his singing voice is rich and delightful.
It’s ironic that this play should coincide with a production of Oleanna in the other theatre space because there is a little bit of politically correct awkwardness in The Fantasticks with Michael Simpson’s Mortimer, a travelling Vaudevillian performer who dresses up like an “American Indian” and does famous death scenes. Simpson gives every ounce of panache to his role, Ziegler hams it up with clownish goodness, and I tend to be of the opinion, in general, that being politically incorrect is inherent to comedy, but I still couldn’t enjoy this performance as much as I wanted to and I admit to being relieved when Simpson returned as a pirate in the Second Act, since pirates, in general, seem not to show offence at being maligned, spoofed and portrayed as being cartoonish drunken fools in contemporary culture. (Thank goodness!)
As there is a famed moon and sun in The Fantasticks, there also needs to be a star, and that is undoubtedly Oliver Dennis, as Mortimer’s partner in crime, Henery, an ancient and decrepit classical actor, almost regal in his reverence for the art, despite the fact that he has completely forgotten his lines. Dennis should win an award for best entrance in a musical, as he immediately brings down the house, and, as always, his mastery of the art of comedy is utterly breathtaking and perfectly hysterical. Whenever I have the great fortune of seeing Oliver Dennis onstage I am always acutely aware that I am in the presence of a true genius of the form, and his performance in this show proves it.
At a time when it seems that nearly everything our postmodern culture offers us is dripping with derisive, irreverent, cynical satire, when it seems doubtful that we, as a society, were ever callow, not to mention tender, it is nice to revisit a musical like The Fantasticks to try to remember when genuine goodness and optimistic hope were not just dismissed with sneers and snickers. There is a wistfulness to the show now, a longing, perhaps, for “life to be slow and oh so mellow.” The magic of the theatre, of course, is that, it can be again, if only in the place where your imagination and a room filled with actors ignites.
The Fantasticks plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street Building 49) until March 24, 2011. For more information or to book your tickets please visit www.soulpepper.ca or call 416.866.8666.

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