Friday, September 18, 2015

'The Fantasticks' displays its perennial appeal in Actors Theatre of Indiana production

A theater company can assure itself of good advance buzz by putting a certified hit on the schedule, and there's no hit more durable in the world of small-scale theater than "The Fantasticks."
The young lovers consider only the happiest options.

A production calculated to win Hoosier hearts is under way in the Studio Theatre at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts, where it is being staged through Sept. 27. As seen Thursday, this version of the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical fantasy gets both the down-to-earth and ethereal aspects right.

Neatly designed and musically shipshape, Actors Theatre of Indiana's  "Fantasticks" is best of all vividly fleshed out in characters and their interactions through an allegory of love's eternal pleasures and perils.

Directed by Bill Jenkins, the show has the ingratiating informality of the original, overlaid by the mystery and artifice so essential to the lesson the story imparts.

That lesson can be boiled down to a line in El Gallo's signature song, "Try to Remember": "Without a hurt the heart is hollow." The hurts are engineered unwittingly by the success of the young lovers' fathers in bringing the pair together. Parental interference has a way of not being able to enjoy its occasional triumphs for long. That's what drives the second act, whose scary trials are spellbindingly staged here before the hurts life inflicts on the lovers move them toward reconciliation and a happy ending.

El Gallo, a rogue for hire in the swashbuckling mold, was played by Logan Moore, whose piercing eyes and strutting self-confidence in the role were all it needed — besides an appealing singing voice, which he also had. The lovers had naivete oozing out of their pores in the portrayals of Matt (by Michael Ferraro) and Luisa (by Laura Sportiello).

As enthusiasts for the best life has to offer, their responses to the unexpected difficulties of being together were movingly carried out. Determined to experience the world, like an uncoddled Candide, Matt undergoes trials that shock Luisa until El Gallo insists she view them through a mask of illusion. The lovers' hollow hearts are eventually filled with a more mature view of love, of course.

Putting ATI's female artistic directors into the two father roles worked brilliantly. Cynthia Collins, as the fiercely controlling Hucklebee, was well matched against the parsimonious Bellomy, played by Judy Fitzgerald. Their singing and the execution of Tyler Hartman's choreography in "Plant a Radish" was a highlight of their partnership.

Paul Collier Hansen and Michael Elliott played to the hilt a pair of amusingly shabby clowns engaged by El Gallo to carry out his artfully concocted designs upon the lovers. Holly Stults helped complete the magical manipulations in the essential role of the Mute.

The musical atmosphere was richly painted throughout by the instrumental accompaniment of music director Brent E. Marty, piano, and Melissa Gallant, harp. The symbolic roles of sun and moon got stunning realization through the lighting of Marciel Greene and the props of  David "Kip" Shawger, The effective production team also includes Jonathan Parke (sound) and Katie Cowan-Sickmeier (costumes), with the overarching mastery of Bernie Killian in place as scenic designer and technical director.