Saturday, February 19, 2011

'Fantasticks' is fun, light theater

It is easy to see why “The Fantasticks” is the world's longest running musical with its original off-Broadway production running 42 years and 17,162 performances. The show is inoffensive, non-confrontational, has some catchy tunes, has some good laughs and is just about impossible to actively dislike. It is light entertainment at its purest.

Friday night Arts in Motion opened their production of “The Fantasticks,” a fund-raiser for Dollars For Scholars, at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center at Fryeburg Academy. It will be performed their again Saturday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m. before switching to Kennett High School's Loynd Auditorium Saturday, Feb. 26, and Sunday, Feb. 27.

The show, a reworking of the Greek story of Pyramus and Thisbe, is about two fathers (Keith Force and Rob Owen) who pretend to feud to trick their children, Matt (Matthew Stoker) and Luisa (Emilie Jensen) into falling in forbidden love. With the help of El Gallo (Rafe Matregrano), a bandit who also doubles as the narrator, the fathers stage an elaborate abduction of Luisa that turns Matt into a hero and thus ends the fictitious feud.

This may sound like I've given away the whole show, but things don't immediately head to a happy ending. Things become complicated in the second act and love is given a test by El Gallo.

The production is well cast, although at times uneven. Jensen is a stand out as Luisa, an ugly duckling who went mad when she discovered she had become pretty. The character is naïve and childlike and Jensen brings both qualities across perfectly and is consistently funny throughout.

She also has a fabulous powerhouse that is almost too powerful as she, at times, drowns out Stoker and Matregrano. Both Stoker and Matregrano are strong singers in their own right, but they struggle to reach Jensen's volume. The actors are not using any sort of microphones for the Fryeburg production, but should have amplification at Kennett, so the differences in volume will probably be balanced out at those later performances.

Stoker, like Jensen, does a nice job capturing a dimly innocent quality as Matt, who is older than Luisa, but certainly not wiser. Their flirtation is on the level of elementary school playground and is silly and sweet.

Matregrano makes a good narrator of the piece and provides some moments of menace. He is essentially a puppeteer pulling everyone's strings. This is literalized in the show's best number “Round and Round” in which, through clever choreography, it appears as if Matregrano is controling Jensen's movements.

Force and Owen are funny and have a good bantering chemistry as the fathers, but while they act their roles just fine, their singing is lacking. It is fine when they are singing a duet together because their limited singing abilities provide songs like “Never Say No” a goofy charm. It becomes more distracting though when they are paired with the other cast members who all have superior voices. Even so, they are comic characters, so you can give the singing a pass.

There is also good supporting work from Reed Van Rossum and Craig Holden as a couple of actors employed by El Gallo. Holden has a lot of fun with his character, an aging performer, who at least sort of remembers the many parts he has played. Van Rossum, dressed as an Indian and speaking with an inexplicable, but quite amusing cockney accent, also earns some big laughs.

So, while the production is flawed, director George Wiese has done a nice job of working with the cast he has to create a show that on balance is an entertaining, easygoing evening of theater.

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