Once upon a time, many moons ago, long before performance art, videos, and like, way cool coffee bars, there was a sweet homely kind of live theater. It was never intimidating and the shows were almost always familiar, and wholesome, and full of good old fashioned funny-bone tickling jokes. It was the kind of theater where folks made reservations, dressed in their best church clothes, and sat close up to the stage because the theaters weren't ever too big. They ordered up a big slab of prime rib and mashed potatoes and maybe a glass of red wine, then sat back and waited for the show to start.
Many Houstonians have probably never been to a dinner theater. We haven't had one of the real old fashioned kind since the Windmill shut down years ago. But the Great Caruso is trying hard to bring back the old, in more ways than one.
This summer the Victorian-styled little theater, with its wide gilded banisters and big old-world looking murals on the walls began producing full-length musicals. The Fantasticks is its second show. The Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt play is famous for being "the longest running show in American Theater history," as the program dutifully notes. That old musical war horse "Try to Remember" is from this show. You know how it goes: "Try to remember the days of September, when life was sweet, and oh so mellow" -- something like that. It's a quaint little musical about two kids who come of age. Twenty-year-old Matt (Zack Foley) and 16-year-old Luisa (Lori St. Pe) fall madly, desperately, deliciously into forbidden love. They meet secretly, at the wall that stands between their yards, for innocent, utterly sexless liaisons.
But low and behold, their parents, it turns out, have been plotting to make this relationship grow all along. They're wise enough to know that kids want what their parents forbid. And everyone knows that prohibited love makes things all the more intense. Once the kids are totally infatuated, Luisa's mom, Mrs. Bellamy (Donna Hannah), and Matt's dad Hucklebee (Weir Kyle) -- the sharpest old connivers -- work out an amazing scheme to bring the relationship out in the open. They hire a bandit to pretend to rape Luisa so that Matt can save her and become the hero to have her.
If this story sounds bizarre, outlandish and ridiculously sexist, it is, especially in this day and age. The love birds as characters are drawn to fit the most wide-yawning stereotypes: Luisa is terribly interested in her looks, while Matt wants to travel the world. Luisa's most risque dream is to "go to town in a golden gold and have [her] fortune told." When Matt travels the world he is horribly disillusioned (the big bad world and all that). Luisa actually falls for her bandit abductor (she gets all shivery just thinking about him). This kind of women-just-want-to-be-raped notion is enough to send even the most half-hearted feminists into head-spins.
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To make matters worse, the dialogue in this silly show comes in little rhyming couplets such as, "The play's not done, oh no not quite, for life never ends in a moonlit night."
Perhaps all this could be ignored given the spirit of the thing. Good old-fashioned fun often drags a lot of bad old fashioned notions around with it. But this particular production of The Fantasticks suffers from a series of flaws beginning with some very stiff actor/ singers who don't get much help from director Barry Dean or musical director Trish Stengel. The phrasing for the songs is neither fresh nor in any way original and the performers are often stuck on ladders or platforms preventing much real movement across the stage. In fact, Morgan Redmond, as Henry the old decrepit clown, is one of the few standouts in the cast, in part because he uses and fills up every inch of the tiny stage at The Great Caruso with his enormous child-like energy. Foley and Hannah are also relatively strong cast members.
In theory, dinner theater sounds good. Most Houstonians are so busy that a one-stop dinning/theater experience might be appealing. But sometimes it's best to let the old go gently into that good night.
The Fantasticks is in unlimited run Wednesdays through Sundays at the Great Caruso, 10001 Westheimer, 780-4900. The price, which includes dinner, is $27.95-$34.95.