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Theater Review: Poignant production of 'The Fantasticks' at Lyric

Nate Stukey, Sheridan McMichael and Arden Walker are in Lyric's 2016 production of "The Fantasticks." [Photo by KO Rinearson]
Nate Stukey, Sheridan McMichael and Arden Walker are in Lyric's 2016 production of "The Fantasticks." [Photo by KO Rinearson]

Lyric Theatre offers a moving production of “The Fantasticks” at the theatre on the Plaza through April 24. Co-written by Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music), “The Fantasticks” ran from May 1960 until January 2002; it remains the longest-running production in American history and the only off-Broadway musical to win a Tony. The 2006 revival continues to play in NYC.

Jones and Schmidt created an allegory loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s “Les Romanesques” and intended for very simple set, prop, costume and lighting design. The music is scored for the simple and complex interplay of piano and harp with voices and is effectively conducted by music director Brian Hamilton at the piano. The deftly written script is a product of its time and has a longer exposition than modern audiences are used to seeing; it takes thoughtful application of energy to activate this concretely philosophical play. 

Director Ashley Wells has done a very nice job shaping the performances of her excellent cast.  Everyone has moments of brilliance, and the staging and use of space—including using the audience as a metaphor for The World—serves the story well. Costumes are minimal and yet effectively identify each character. As with most apparently simple productions, the technical crew bears tremendous responsibility for the show; Wells’ crew delivers a well-woven production.

The character who tends to hold this play together is El Gallo, who both narrates the story and agrees to help out the two fathers. El Gallo is a buckler of swashes and a doer of deeds—for the right fee. Played by Mateja Govich, El Gallo is masterful, mercenary, and manipulative—and more than a little pompous. Govich performs the character well, his powerful singing voice carrying the persona quite effectively. 

The Boy, Matt, and the Girl, Luisa, are romantically entwined through a hole in the wall between their feuding fathers. The fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, have built the wall and invented the feud in order to encourage this very romance. But it isn’t going quite fast enough, so they hire El Gallo to move it along—with apparently less than optimal results.

The Boy, played with great range by Nate Stukey, grows from innocence to wisdom in the course of the play. Stukey brought a lovely naïveté to Matt in the early stages; he revealed the devotion and fidelity of one who has never known any challenges in life. As the play progresses and Matt learns that the world is not always a safe place, Stukey took the character through the process from childish cynicism to mature stability. His strong and appropriately youthful tenor was pitched perfectly for the character.

Arden Walker gave the Girl a strongly thoughtful joy in the beginning, only to take her from the petulance of not getting her way through the pain of loss to her own sense of settled balance.  Walker has a lovely voice and strong stage presence; the role of Luisa is a little dated, so it takes some chops to make it work. Walker performed Luisa with all of the appropriate elements of mid-adolescence while singing the role beautifully.

Both fathers were also well cast. Hucklebee, the Boy’s father, was a rowdy joy as portrayed by Thomas E. Cunningham; his broad style worked splendidly and provided a nice balance with Brian Stockton as the Girl’s father, Bellomy. The Boy’s father is the motivator behind the plot to hire El Gallo to stage an abduction of the Girl so that the Boy can be heroic, thus “convincing” the two plotting fathers to sanction the relationship. Stockton delivered Bellomy as a slightly more restrained and certainly more parsimonious head-of-household than his good friend Hucklebee.  Stockton’s more careful and restrained style served as the foil for Hucklebee’s flamboyance; he also made Bellomy’s care of his purse seem just slightly pinchpenny without drifting over the line to stinginess.   

Terry Runnells as Henry, The Old Actor, came close to stealing the show, and Hassan Nazari-Robati as Mortimer, The Man Who Dies, did a nice job as a sidekick, foil, and memory aid for Henry. 

Perhaps the most important character, the Mute, is played by Sheridan McMichael. The Mute serves as parts of the set and, without saying a word, often comments upon the action. This part can be played as merely a piece of scenery, but McMichael lifts it up to a place of true stage magic. His pacing and physicality complemented and commented upon the efforts and actions of others, and his presence was essential and elemental in the world of the play.

In spite of its moving conclusion, the first half of the first act on opening night was just a trifle low in energy. Overall performances were very good, with standout moments for each cast member, although it seemed at times that there were holds for laughs that didn’t quite materialize. The final act certainly delivered the goods, and this company has all the strength to bring future performances solidly home. 

“The Fantasticks” plays at Lyric on the Plaza Wednesday evening through Sunday afternoon through April 24.  Wednesday and Thursday evening shows have a 7:30 p.m. curtain; Friday and Saturday evening have an 8 p.m. curtain; Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. For tickets and directions to the theatre, check the website at or call the box office at (405) 524-9312.