THE FANTASTICKS at Ivoryton Playhouse: A light, lovely take on a musical theater classic

Photo by Jonathan Steele
Back row: Ryan Bloomquist as Matt, Front Row: Patricia Schuman as Mother Hucklebee, Kimberly Emmanuel as Luisa, and Carly Callahan as Mother Bellomy in Ivoryton Playhouse’s THE FANTASTICKS

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On the Aisle

For more than 50 years the romantic fable THE FANTASTICKS has played around the world to the adulation of international audiences. The musical, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, is a tale of innocent young love, disappointment, deception and, in the end, a joyful realization of the adage that “the grass is always greener….”  Usually played as a whimsically dark tale on a bare black stage in the style of commedia dell’arte, the production at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut reverses the darkness with bright lights, a light lovely touch and a cast that is engaging, enthusiastic and bursting with charm.

The show was first performed Off Broadway in 1960 and ran for 42 years, making it the world’s longest running musical.  It was revived in 2006 and ran for another 4390 performances at the Jerry Orbach theater in NYC until 2017.  This is an intimate show, suited for a small space, and the Ivoryton Playhouse is just the medium-right size to retain an intimacy with the audience.

The simple bouncy tunes and lovely melodies are beautifully played by musical director Jill Brunelle at the piano and Sena Hornby at the harp. These two women create the sparkling mood of the piece with their exquisite musicianship. From the overture and the opening and closing number “Try To Remember,” the music sustains the story, with the aforementioned tune along with “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You” being the most memorable and melodic songs that can stand alone outside of the text of the play.

The story of a girl of 16 and a boy of nearly 20 who fall in love, they are dissuaded from their passions by two overbearing competitive parents who are usually cast as two bumbling fathers. The Ivoryton production has ingeniously assigned the parental roles to Patricia Schuman* and Carly Callahan as two meddling mothers. Both Ms. Schuman and Ms. Callahan have gorgeous voices, which are perfectly suited to the deliciously versatile score.  They play the mothers with   outrageous cattiness and comical indignance when the roles call for next-door neighbor conflict.

Kimberly Immanuel* as Luisa, the girl, and Ryan Bloomquist as Matt, the boy, blend their voices beautifully in “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You.”  These two actors, playing the young lovers, project their unbridled passion of first love in Act One and devastating disillusionment and disappointment later in the play with a full understanding of their respective characters. It’s a delight to hear their voices blend in song.

Playing El Gallo, the narrator/villain of the piece, is the powerfully-voiced bass-baritone David Pittsinger*.  His interpretation gives El Gallo an unbridled Devilish good cheer coupled with his masterful vocal talent that is wonderfully highlighted in “It Depends On What You Pay” and in the duet with Matt in the fluid number “I Can See It.”  Whatever Mr. Pittsinger sings is a memorable experience for all who hear him.  Rakish, charming and cunning, El Gallo is a deceptive character with evil intentions.  Mr. Pittsinger allows none of those intentions to get in the way of his delightful and fully likeable characterization. He’s having fun with the role, and we go right along on the merry-go-round ride with him.

There is an abundance of comedy in THE FANTASTICKS, with two brilliant comics, R. Bruce Connelly* as the has-been Shakespearean actor Henry, and Will Clark as the Indian (who is really not an Indian), give over-the-top madcap portrayals of these wacky buffoons.  Mr. Connelly could easily receive raves in England as any one of the Bard’s comic characters, and here he is so madly exuberant that he lights up the stage as soon as he appears.  Similarly, in the jargon of the theater, most actors know that if a colleague says “I died onstage last night” it would mean the actor’s performance was awful.  In the case of Mr. Clark, he “dies onstage” better than anyone we have ever seen – sustaining his Indian’s riotous death scene with one surprising pratfall after another, until the audience virtually begs him to stop so everyone can catch their collective breaths.

Stealing nearly every scene without uttering a word is Cory Candelet as The Mute.  This young actor is one to watch – his facial expressions, rhythmic body movements and quick-as-a-flash ability to seemingly be in two places at once are crucial to the success of the show.  Mr. Candelet is the scene changer, prop man, clown and cheerleader who interacts with every other character flawlessly.  Watch for his music-hall style dance with the two mothers for a delightful visual treat.

The show is directed and choreographed by Brian Feehan who keeps the complicated action moving flawlessly – no stage waits here. The bright, airy set designed by Martin Marchitto helps to lighten the heavier messages in the play, and sun splashed and moonglow lighting by Marcus Abbott enhance the scenery. Costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina define each character perfectly, with that of El Gallo depicting Armani-style sophistication (although it’s been hinted that those are Mr. Pittsinger’s own glad rags), and that of The Mute suggesting a music hall Baggy-pants comedian.  Mother Bellomy’s middle class gardening sundress reminds us that the 50’s were not the best fashion decade, while Henry and The Indian are delightfully dressed to “make ‘em laugh.”  Tate Burmeister has designed the sound so that every nuance of each clever lyric can be clearly and distinctly heard, and James Joseph Clark* manages the complicated staging with aplomb.

This is simply a lovely show, beautifully cast, and is a perfectly joyful way to say goodbye to winter and let a new Ivoryton Playhouse season put a spring in your step.

THE FANTASTICKS plays at the Ivoryton Playhouse through April 8th, 2018. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. There will be no performance on Easter Sunday, April 1; Replacement show (in lieu of Easter) on Saturday, March 31st at 2pm. Additional “storm replacement matinee” at 2pm on Saturday, April 7th.

Tickets are $50 for adults, $45 for seniors, $22 for students and $17 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, Connecticut.

*denotes member of Actors Equity

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