By Jamie Bullins
Lincoln Community Playhouse, Friday, September 10, 2021, 7:30 pm.
Before I begin to recount my experience with the performance of Schmidt’s and Jones’s The Fantasticks, I would like to commend the Playhouse for starting the evening with a public acknowledgement of the lands of the indigenous peoples of the area by Rosebud Lakota leader Kevin Abourezk. One of the things I believe the Playhouse does well is work to celebrate the word “Community.” I mean, it’s in the title of the organization. And they put forth distinct efforts to widen that community to include everyone, as it should.
If you know The Fantasticks, then you know that it has a storied history in the world of theatre. The show’s original off-Broadway production ran for 21,552 performances, from 1960 to June 4, 2017. It was the world’s longest running musical.
How in the heck could a musical capture the interests of audiences for such a stretch? Well, it’s a simple, elegant work, basically about love, life, and the beauty and harsh reality of both. And the music is charming and just plain beautiful. The story is also simple, as well as the technical elements and staging. It’s an intimate affair. There’s that old adage, “Keep it simple, stupid.” Well, The Fantasticks gets it. And in that simplicity, with some charming characters and an endearing story, the audience is hooked from the opening notes of the overture. Director Morrie Enders gets it.
To begin, the orchestra. Traditionally, there is a pianist and a harpist (and often a percussionist.) We are without the harp in the Playhouse production, but we aren’t, really. Jack Forbes Wilson drives the production all on his own on an upright piano onstage and never misses a beat, or, in any way, makes you think anything is missing. He was also the Music Director for the piece and his work is evident throughout his performance and everyone else’s. It’s a musical, so the music has to shine. And it does.
When Sean Flattery (El Gallo) sings the first line, “Try to remember the kind of September, when life was slow and oh so mellow,” we know we’re in for a pleasant evening. Isn’t that where and when we like to quite often be? His voice is smooth like velvet. I’m not exaggerating. El Gallo acts as our guide through the story and Sean is just the showman for the job. I hope he thanked Hannah Hansen (costume designer) for that cape. He works that thing with skill and flourish. He’s a wink and a smile guy, which is so well suited here.
The Boy, Matt (Zephaniah Siebler) and the Girl, Luisa (Jocelyn Tisdale) are a believable pair, very well matched here. Both have excellent voices beyond their years and portray the naïveté of the characters superbly. As an audience, you commit to their story together and ride the roller coaster of their journey with a heart that is full and also completely broken at times. As performers I can only say that they are just downright lovely. I know it sounds sappy, but it is The Fantasticks. You’ll get it when you see it. And you should see it.
The fathers, Hucklebee (Graeme Cooper) and Bellomy (Ken Killman) are a pair that one could call the ‘odd couple’ of horticulture. They are the masterminds behind basically the entire plot of the evening and their hearts are in the right place. Kind of a ‘does the end justify the means’ thing, you’ll have to see for yourself. And these two characters are a joy to watch. Their simple choreography is endearing, and they just inspire you to smile throughout, even when they are feuding.
The supporting players, the Old Actor, Henry (Danny Johnson) and the Man Who Dies, Mortimer (Tory Petz) are adorable and just downright funny. When Henry and Mortimer arrive on stage, it’s clear at first sight who they are and their roles here. Henry wants to be seen ‘in the light.’ He and Mortimer don’t need a lot of extraneous light, they kind of carry it with them.
The ensemble is rounded out by not one, but two Mutes. So, here, in the Playhouse production, a bonus. They act as the wall, a central character here, and fulfill many other purposes on stage for the story and staging. They are graceful and purposeful about it, probably due to choreographer Ted Blessing. Without drawing unwanted focus, you can’t take your eyes off them at times. They are a joy.
I cannot finish up without mentioning the design/technical elements. So, The Fantasticks, is a simple piece, purposefully. It’s written that way. The scenic elements are a platform, a bench, and a couple of chests. The lighting is featured here to accent that simplicity, and Kathleen Turner adds great color, texture, and depth to the work. There was this great look as the show finished up, where the poles on the set, and the moon cast these great shadows on the cyc. Kind of stunning actually. And the costumes were spot on, but I’m a little biased here because the designer is one of my students. In as objective a manner as I can manage, the clothes fit each character to a tee, the aforementioned cape for El Gallo is just one example of the work and how it supported the ensemble and their storytelling.
Now, this morning finds me seemingly gushing about this work. I won’t apologize and it sounds a bit out of character for me, but, I guess, I’m basically a grouchy old guy who was touched by the charm of this historic work. In the times we live, especially the tragic anniversary for our country that is today, we need to remember that love can be the center of our lives. It can. Thank you, Lincoln Community Playhouse.
If you go: You can catch The Fantasticks September 10-12, 17-19, Fridays/Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm. Tickets may be purchased online.
Jamie Bullins is on the faculty in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film at UNL, since the fall of 2017. He is an Educator, Scenographer, Director, and Playwright and has been at it for almost 30 years now.
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