By Bill Moss, Published: April 19, 2014
The first conspicuous thing about "The Fantasticks" is the set, which has transformed the Playhouse Downtown into a new space.
It is the first theater-in-the-round show the Flat Rock Playhouse has staged. I was skeptical that it could be done but this show has proved that it can, thanks to the creative ideas of director Vincent Marini, set designer Dennis Maulden and props master Chris Fields.
This could be interesting to watch, I jotted in my notes, if there were no show at all, if we only saw stagehands moving the various pieces around on stage.
The director and choreographer have done a splendid job playing to all four sides, thanks to the center-stage turntable. I might have thought that a four-sided production would result in our seeing the backs of actors 75 percent of the time but it never seemed that way: The magic of theater.
During an introduction to the show on April 3, Marini and Maulden had explained their plans to use old-fashioned theatrical tricks to make this a visually stunning show, and they have succeeded.
Debuting the summer of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, "The Fantasticks" has stood the test of time because of its uplifting story and appealing score. The Playhouse Downtown production feels contemporary despite the play's age and oft-told storyline: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. The world (an external force) separates boy and girl. The world makes boy and girl see the value of girl and boy. Boy and girl are reunited, bonded more strongly than ever. It's a show that's easy to watch and suitable for the whole family, magical enough in its staging to please the eye and strong enough in its music and vocals to please the ear.
Carly Evan Hughes grows into the role of Luisa from Act I to Act II. As the scales fall from her eyes, she gets tougher and better. As Matt, Justin Gregory Lopez looks the part of the innocent 20-year-old and has the voice the role requires.
Peter Gosik, as El Gallo, sets the mood from the top with "Try to Remember," which is well known by virtually everyone and is the song that patrons are most likely to hum on the way home.
Two fathers (Preston Dyar and Michael Kostroff) hatch a plan to match Matt and Luisa by faking a feud and erecting a wall that separates them. The dads hired a troupe of traveling actors to fake an abduction of Luisa and allow her rescue by Matt. It works fine until the fathers, now in an actual feud, expose the fraud. The would-be lovers turn cynical, rejecting the "arranged marriage" they had always hoped to avoid.
Set designer Dennis Maulden describes the staging of 'The Fantasticks'
Chris Allison and Ryan Hilliard, the actors who climb out of trunk to carry out Gallo's plans, give us many moments of buffoonery. Dyar and Kostroff delight as the dads, especially in the fun "Plant A Radish." (Kostroff, who directed "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," was a late sub for the originally cast Hucklebee, who became ill.)
As the Mute, Maria Buchanan displays impressive upper-body stamina (she holds up "the wall" for long periods) and a wonderfully expressive face. (If like me you panic at the prospect a two-hour mime performance, fear not. Buchanan's mime scene at the top of the show is mercifully short.)
The show sheds its lightheartedness midway through the second act, when Matt is captured and flogged during his travels to an unpleasant place. Battered and bruised but more mature — "Deep in December, it's nice to remember/Without a hurt the heart is hollow" — Matt and Luisa rediscover their love, this time on their own terms and on a more solid foundation.
One more innovation that adds to the theater experience is the use of two platforms in the rear corners for four musicians and their two keyboards, violin, guitar and cello.
As I noted last week, the Playhouse has given the 2014 lineup a theme — "The Season of Laughter and Love." Shooting the gap between the first and second Mainstage shows, "The Fantasticks" sustains the theme. I might not have believed that the longest running musical in the world could seem as fresh as this production. But it does, thanks to the youthful enthusiasm of its stars, strong work in supporting roles and the creative stagecraft of Maulden and Co.