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I don’t have to try very hard to remember “The Fantasticks.”
Of all the shows I’ve attended over the past 30-plus years, I’ve seen this one more than any other. Some were quite memorable; most others were rather forgettable.
So I was fairly non-plussed when Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre announced “The Fantasticks” as part of its twenty-fifth anniversary season. Sure, the beloved musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt ran for a record-shattering 42 years – and 17,162 consecutive performances – off-Broadway. But it’s been done to death by nearly every local theater group, and to be totally honest, I felt this lovely, cutesy, little musical was a bit too “traditional” and “safe” for a professional theater known for taking risks and pushing boundaries.
However it was something Artistic Director Carla Milarch said to me this past summer that gave me hope: The shows she picked this season were chosen to showcase the talents of specific actors who, over the years, have become audience favorites.
And to her credit, Milarch delivered what she promised: a handful of magical performers in one of the slickest and most fun productions of “The Fantasticks” to cross a local stage in a very long time.
The musical’s storyline is quite simple: Two fathers plot to have their children marry, but since an offspring’s job is always to do the opposite of what their parents expect, they forbid the two from seeing each other – which, of course, has the opposite effect. Then they concoct a plan to have the son rescue the daughter from an abductor, after which everyone will live happily ever after. But as you might expect, that part of the scheme encounters a few unforeseen snags.
What sets Milarch’s production apart isn’t the imaginative use of the Network’s space. (The last three rows of seats have been moved to the left and right sides of the stage, leaving room for the actors to play at the back of the house.) Nor is it the wizardry of set designer Monika Essen, lighting designer Dan Walker and costumer Ralph Hoy. (It’s somewhat like Barnum and Bailey go punk, with moving sets, colorful projections and a white-faced mute who looks like he just wandered out of Detroit’s infamous City Club.)
Rather, it’s the little things Milarch, choreographer Jim Posante and their cast inject into the production, as well as its infectious spirit, that draw us into it.
Devilishly handsome Scott Crownover (as The Narrator) and Jason Richards (as The Boy) are especially adept at mining every nuance its creators built into the script. With little more than a quick glance, a slight gesture or a pointedly-shaded vocal inflection, they reveal significantly more than just the words alone. Plus, the two have incredible singing voices. (And watch Crownover whenever he’s not in a scene, but just observing it: His focus is amazing!)
Also astonishingly focused is straight-faced Kevin Young as The Mute prop master who scurries about the stage delivering all sorts of theatrical goodies to the actors.
Newcomer Andriana Pachella plays The Girl with wide-eyed innocence – and a gorgeous singing voice that blends well with Richards (“Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You”) and Crownover (“Round & Round”).
Great comedy relief is provided by B.J. Love (The Old Actor) and Aaron T. Moore (The Man Who Dies) who practically steal every scene they’re in.
If there’s a slight letdown, it’s this: The electricity level of the two fathers, Charles Sutherland (The Boy’s Father) and Glenn Bugala (The Girl’s Father) doesn’t quite match that of the others – despite otherwise fine performances.
And just one caution: Although the music provided by pianist/percussionist Patrick Farrell and harpist Sylvia LaPratt is spectacular, Farrell’s joyous and infectious playing style stole focus from the action a few too many times.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun, through Dec. 31. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0696 or http://www.performancenetwork.org