Fresh creativity flows through ‘The Fantasticks’

Julie Benko and Francisco Gonzalez as the young lovers.

By David Lampe-Wilson
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Weston Playhouse has kicked off its 83rd season with a reimagined production of The Fantasticks. This classic and charming musical fable has been given a fresh, breezy take by director Susanna Gellert, who also serves as the theater’s new executive artistic director.

A new creativity flows through this production, making it at once new and vital and, while it may bother purists, it also opens up new levels of interpretation that are fun to discover.

For those unfamiliar with this musical, The Fantasticks asks its audience to use its imagination as a small troupe of players acts out a story about a boy, a girl, two fathers and a wall that was built to keep them apart. It’s a tale of romance and fantasy, growing and maturing, and learning the harsh truths about the way of the world. With book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, The Fantasticks lays claim to the title of “longest running musical in American history.”

Director Gellert begins by dismissing the old baggage of this well-worn musical. Here there is no trunk dragged on stage and characters assembling to get into costume. And here the song “Try to Remember” as shared by the cast in the opening number collectively invites viewers to join them in thoughts of memory and magic in the moonlight.

Comic relief comes from Wayne W. Pretlow and David Bonanno as the two fathers.

And once the spark of “Try to Remember” has been lit, the show flows with a natural ease from first love to disappointment to betrayal to reconciliation with a vital energy one rarely witnesses in summer theater.

Francisco Gonzalez and Julie Benko play young lovers Matt and Luisa with a loopy in love freshness that, once it sours, is replaced by a sad cynicism. As handled here, this emotional turnabout allows us to watch them mature, to see their sparkle be tempered by rawness of experience. It should also be noted that their vocal work is stellar.

Devin Ilaw’s rogue El Gallo is not the cliched charlatan with the black cape and lilting guitar. Ilaw’s El Gallo walks a fine line between scamp and scoundrel. There is often an edge to Ilaw’s playing that makes us wonder whether or not we should like this ne’er-do-well. Ilaw’s duets with Gonzalez — “I Can See It” and “Beyond That Road” — prove thrilling.

Comic relief comes in the form of David Bonanno and Wayne W. Pretlow as the lovers’ scheming fathers and from Tom Aulino and Geoffrey Wade as a duo of traveling, aging actors. And let’s not forget Megumi Nakamura as Mute who, with unceasing energy sets scenes, dances up a storm and showers the players with untold amounts of glitter.

Duets by Devin Ilaw’s rogue El Gallo, left, and Francisco Gonzalez prove thrilling, while scenic/lighting design by Scott Zielinski creates unending variations of mood.

Scenic/lighting design by Scott Zielinski creates unending variations of mood, contributing color, shadow and light that enhance every emotion. Costume Designer Grier Coleman offers up a mixed bag of apparel that rarely intrudes on the show. Music Director Yan Li sometimes overwhelms the voices he is accompanying on piano, but his playing is always nuanced. And cheers to harpist Kathryn Sloat who adds so many additional musical layers to the proceedings.

If you have somehow missed The Fantasticks over its past half century of playing, this is a fine introduction. If you are a dedicated fan, you will discover new things to enjoy.

The Fantasticks continues through July 13 at Weston Playhouse, 12 Park St., Weston. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and 3 p.m. matinees Sunday at 3 p.m. For information and/or tickets click here or call 802-824-5288.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeIn the ArtsReviews

About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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