Musical Romance

Winding Road Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Fantasticks hits a high note

The Fantasticks
The Fantasticks

If you are a theater fan, one could bet with excellent odds that you've seen The Fantasticks. The 1960 musical with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones is the world's longest-running musical, proving its sturdiness in both story and style. It's attractive to theater groups because it doesn't have big set requirements; it has a reasonably populated cast; and it can be imagined in numerous ways.

Winding Road Theater Ensemble, which seems to have been struggling for some time, has surprised us with something they rarely do: a musical. That would be The Fantasticks and it runs just one more weekend.

From the success of this effort, WRTE may be rising from what was almost ashes. Director Maria Caprile has gathered a good little cast and some fine musicians. She has inspired sweetness and song from the major characters and some wonderful schtick from those actors whose characters require it. The result is a very entertaining (though perhaps a bit long) show.

Perhaps the primary reason The Fantasticks has been so successful throughout the years is the nature of its story. It's a very familiar one, for one thing. Young boy and girl fall in love, find love rather boring, stray from each other and come up against the ills of the world. Wounded, they realize that they are truly in love and want to take on the world together in a partnership for life. It's familiar because it's mythic: the quintessentially human story of our love and lives. The grass is greener, the world burns the green turf and we fall into each other's arms for strength and support, realizing that's the only way we can survive.

The show is light-hearted as it celebrates recognizable truth and the importance of imagination, particularly with a character called The Mute, who helps establish the fairytale nature of the story and its settings.

Director Caprile has cast several new faces to Tucson theater stages, as well as a couple we might know already. But it's good to see—and hear—these new folks and their voices, particularly  Mark Hockenberry, who plays El Gallo, a sort of narrator/sometimes character/sometimes philosopher. In every capacity he lends a strong baritone to some of those songs we love, especially "Try to Remember."

Kelly Coates and Damian Garcia are the young lovers and they give us a tender "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "They Were You." Meanwhile, G. L. James and Tony Caprile play the youngster's fathers, and they get to deliver us "Plant a Radish," that tasty song about the difficult difference in planting vegetables and having children. Vegetables are pretty much predictable, but with children, you never know what you're going to grow.

Elena Lucia Terry is quite dear as The Mute, and she nurtures the storytelling, sometimes by being a prop, sometimes an ancillary but nameless character and always by bringing a sense of a scene's emotional content. It's a tricky role for both actor and director because there must be some discretion about when The Mute needs to mix in with the action, helping to define it, and when to fade into the background when the audience's attention should be directed to something else. Caprile and Terry have worked that out pretty well, although there are a couple of moments in which The Mute was a bit in the way.

Then there is the duo of The Old Actor (Chad Davies) and Mortimer, The Man Who Dies (Eddie Diaz). These actually might be be the most fun roles in the show. Intended to be broad and extreme and as goofy as you can get away with, these two take full advantage. Diaz is hilarious as he reacts to injury and (eventual) death. The audience loved him.

It helps that the band is top notch. Under keyboard player Harriet Siskin's musical direction, Darin Guthrie's percussion, Katie Damon's harp and Brenton M. Kossack's bass bring a full and rich sound.

The play was intended to be played with a thrust stage, so that the actors are really close to the audience. Caprile did well here to encourage the actors to engage audience folks when it was appropriate. They inspired playful interaction that the audience just loved.

It seemed a bit curious that, in her director's notes in the program, Caprile says she has set the show with a sense of the Southwest, but other than Diaz' fluent Spanish, there was little sense of her stated intention.

So, there were a few flat notes and some actor missteps. However, the production taken as a whole rose above these, and the timeless story was delivered with sweetness and big-heartedness. See it while you still can.

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