Reverse psychology – it’s a classic tool in the parenting toolbox, as essential as a hammer or screwdriver to an actual toolbox. And it’s at the heart of The Fantasticks, Stages’ inaugural production at their brand new home, The Gordy.
In The Fantasticks, next door neighbors Matt and Luisa are two crazy kids in love with one big problem: a literal wall erected between them by their feuding fathers. Matt’s father, Hucklebee, says Luisa’s father, Bellomy, is a villain, an enemy, but wait – it’s a set up. Turns out the two men are good friends who would really like their children to marry each other and, in an example of classic parent logic, decided to accomplish this goal by putting up a wall between the two because, the fathers agree, “to manipulate children, you merely say no." Since this manufactured instance of forbidden love has worked, Hucklebee now says he’s got a way to end their fake feud: an abduction. Wait, wait – follow him on this one. They’ll hire someone to pretend to abduct Luisa and pretend to let Matt save her, thereby making Matt a hero and ending the feud. And Hucklebee has just the man for the job: the worldly bandit El Gallo, who in turn recruits Henry, a past-his-prime actor who thinks himself a thespian with a capital “T,” and his apprentice of 40 years, Mortimer, who specializes in stage dying.
Like the wall, this plan works, too – Matt saves Luisa, the pair’s relationship is revealed and their delighted fathers are “reunited” in friendship. But, if you think that’s the end of the story, you would be wrong. That just brings us to intermission, because you didn’t really think this could end without the deception being revealed, did you?
With music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones, The Fantasticks is like a fairy tale with a ‘60s sitcom sensibility – bright, silly, and delightfully bubbly like champagne. It’s relatively light fare, yes, but that’s part of its charm. Though there is beauty in the musical’s simplistic Shakespearean set-up, the lure of The Fantasticks can really be found in the relationship it looks to build with its audience and, of course, its killer music. Director Kenn McLaughlin emphasizes both, while channeling the zippy energy of the musical wonderfully, allowing it to run its zany course without losing steam or focus.
The show starts with a voice calling out, “Gordy production number one, go!” and it clearly sets the tone for this fourth-wall breaker. As the overture plays, the cast emerges, led by Lindsay Longacre as The Mute. As her cast mates prepare, Longacre helps sets up the stage, cues the musicians, acts like a barre and returns throughout the production ready to do everything from play a tree to deliver and hand off Jodi Bobrovsky’s clever props, including various masks, the single length of rope that represents the wall, and throw rugs of flowers and veggies. Longacre somehow manages to be both unobtrusive and a pleasant presence on stage, attentive and bemused, particularly by Matt and Luisa.
The “star-crossed” couple is played by Tyler Hecht and Kiaya Scott with the perfect combination of wide eyes and know-it-all youth. As Luisa, Scott exudes a contagious exuberance (complete with multiple piercing squeals), while Hecht plays Matt with an out-of-breath intensity. They share several lovely duets, their sweet, ingénue voices mingling during “Metaphor,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You.”
Luke Longacre and LaBraska Washington play the meddling fathers. Longacre has a bit more anger as Hucklebee and Washington is a bit more put-upon, but their chemistry is like that of a double act. This is exemplified best by their laugh-inducing duet “Never Say No,” which is really pushed over the top by Krissy Richmond’s playful choreography. Richmond incorporates all manner of dance throughout the production, including waltz, a balletic death, and the recognizable arm circles of flamenco, but the horse riding and sword fight miming and two-man kick line for the dads are particularly apt for such a lighthearted show.
Paul Hope and Ronnie Blaine as Henry and Mortimer, respectively, are the scene-stealers of the production, befitting of the slow reveal McLaughlin gifts them. They both have impeccable timing and an ability to mine all of the humor out of their characters, and there’s a lot there for them to work with between Henry’s non-command of Shakespeare’s oeuvre and Mortimer’s death-related physicality. It’s a relief when they return in the second act. (With wigs, too!)
The final member of the cast is Nkrumah Gatling, who plays El Gallo. Decked out in a black cape and flat-brimmed Zorro hat (an ensemble designed by Kristina Hanssen, whose other fun costumes include the black and white stripes and mime’s beret on The Mute, the yellow and blue color scheme for Hucklebee, and the button-adorned collar on Bellomy’s vest), Gatling serves not only as the man who will fake-kidnap Luisa, but also the narrator of the piece and the almost remorseful embodiment of necessary evil. He’s got a strapping stage presence and a commanding baritone voice he shows off on songs like “Try to Remember,” his delivery crisp and nuanced.
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All the action in this musical plays out on Laura Fine Hawkes’s set, which can only be described as beautiful in its deceptive simplicity. At center stage is a raised platform from which a picture frame-like backdrop rises in front of an equally stunning purple background, The Fantasticks emblazoned next to a waning crescent moon on it. In the second act, under Reneé Brode’s dramatic lighting design, the set brightens impossibly under the light of day and panels in the stage are opened, creating a moat of bright LED lights around the raised platform. Enough can’t be said of Brode’s designs, as the set is in turns doused in eye-popping reds, blues, and whites.
The magic that propels The Fantasticks forward can be found in its music, brought to life by musicians from local ensemble Aperio flanking both sides of the stage under the musical direction of Robin Ward Holloway. The piano is the anchor of the score and, therefore, the production, with the harp adding fine points of punctuation and the percussive elements throwing in a bit of color. It mixes beautifully with the actors’ voices, and every note and noise within the show seems to go right thanks to sound designer Richard Ingraham.
It’s worth noting if you don’t already know that the original production of The Fantasticks enjoyed a 40-plus year off-Broadway run, making it the longest running musical ever, and to watch the Stages’ production it’s easy to see why. This production taps into a world of make-believe that doesn’t take itself too seriously and desperately wants you to have a good time. Though the most cynical among us might disagree, I’d bet that even a cynic would crack a smile and find their toes tapping. Even if it might be against their will.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at The Gordy, 800 Rosine. Through March 15. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stageshouston.com. $25 to $67.