The Fantasticks at Camarillo Skyway Playhouse
Luisa (Katy Jarvis) and Matt (Parker Harris) are truly "fantastick" in their roles
Because of its allegorical nature and the relative abstraction of its set The Fantasticks, the longest running musical in history, permits a huge range of production possibilities, so it is fun to see what the next production will come up with. Michael McGraw has now brought his version of the classic to the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, running through 10 July 2016.
The Fantasticks is a type of light, small-scale musical developed for off-Broadway productions in the late 50s and early 60s after Marc Blitztein’s 1954 hit of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera ran for six years, successfully demonstrating the potential profitability of small-scale off-Broadway musicals.
In an era when Broadway musicals routinely spent a quarter of a million dollars on set and costumes, the original production of The Fantasticks spent $900 on set and props and $541 on costumes, then opened in 1959-60 and ran for 42 years and 17,162 performances, providing its initial backers with fabulous returns [as of 2010, 240 times their original investment].
Almost immediately The Fantasticks became a hit for regional, community, and high school productions, averaging around 250 new productions each year and still going strong.
The play is fairly abstract, stylized, streamlined, and archetypal, retaining many aspects of its pre-Modern sources in classic theatre, commedia dell’arte, and even Japanese Noh drama. This gives the play its freedom, but can also be a problem for some companies who do not fully realize what is involved with this freedom.
The best productions usually stay close to the required minimum for their set design: a large trunk for props, which is also often used for the actors to stand on in the “tree” sequences, and somewhere on stage for the principle actors to sit when they are “off” as they do not leave the stage during the entire production. This frees up the blocking and lets the actors move and work in a more physical manner.
It should also be noted that in the original production, the cast had strong movement backgrounds and knew how to move, and many productions use a full-fledged professional mime for the silent part, often using Pirandello-like make-up to distinguish him/her from the “real” characters in the play. It is a deceptively difficult part.
One of the best productions I’ve seen used only the trunk and five of those orange highway cones you see when CalTrans works on our roads to denote the wall/fence and when the silent or “wall” character was building the wall. The rest of the stage was completely blank. The “off” characters sat on the floor, far back stage left and right.
The original New York production had a bit more than the trunk to its set and so does Michael McGraw’s production in Camarillo. He uses a Carnival-like setting, a direction that was also taken in a successful recent major revival of the play in this decade.
But doing too much set is potentially dangerous with this play, because the more you put on the set, the more it tends to inhibit the blocking and acting and introduce a more static element into the production. The one thing that can kill The Fantasticks is getting too static or slowing the production down. The script, as is, is already a bit long and if the action sequences take too much time, they drag on the play, which in turn impedes the magic. When this happens people leave the theatre wondering what on earth could have been in this play to justify a 42 year run in New York City?
It takes strong physical acting to overcome this, and a lot of today’s actors do not have the background or training anymore to do this. The big exception to this in this cast is Dale Alpert, whose very fine and fun Hucklebee delivers the spirit and physical presence that makes this play work. He is great to watch.
Because of all this, there used to be an old adage with this play: “beware producing this play too close to Hollywood”. Meaning: Because these older theatre traditions and this play essentially demand stage and acting techniques that are technically 180 degrees opposite of those required and used in modern TV and Hollywood film, your acting talent pool is not going to necessarily be aligned with your production needs.
That means, here, an acting pool that may not necessarily have the training or understanding of the underlying requirements of more physical theatre. Often completely naive productions off in the hinterlands do well with this play with untrained actors going crazy with the acting, which can help; maybe one reason the play has done so well at the high school level and in remote community theaters. The Fantasticks is not about finely honed acting: it is about theatre in the old-fashioned sense, as spectacle and colorful, rampaging entertainment. It’s way closer to Cirque Du Soleil than Ibsen. Or better yet: Romper Room or even Soupy Sales than Days of Our Lives.
Camarillo is pretty close to Hollywood and that poses some real challenges for Michael McGraw, the director, though I have to give a lot of credit to McGraw for bringing this play to Ventura in the first place and to a very earnest cast that gives a heartfelt and honest performance.
In community theatre the director has to work with what they get: singers that can’t act, actors that can’t sing, actors who can sing and act, but don’t project, actors that project perfectly and have just the right acting chops, but are a bit rough in the voice and will blow away the rest of the cast in terms of their stage presence so you have to balance all this somehow, and so on. But this unevenness is part of the fun of community theatre and when it is honest and sincere, it all comes together with a vulnerability and presence that is worth the evening.
McGraw also has the benefit of some good voices, something that is often sorely lacking in Fantasticks productions. Yes, it is a light musical, but not music to be taken lightly. The music gives us most of the story. Jeff Berg gives us a well-sung El Gallo, a crucial part as the master of ceremonies, along with Parker Harris, as Matt the male lead, also delivering solid acting and singing. Katy Jarvis, as Luisa the female lead, has a voice with potential and seems to have some dance or acting background that fits the play, just a bit more help and confidence and she has a fine Luisa.
Rounding out the cast, you have Laura Ring playing Bellomy, usually a male part, giving a different dimension to the Bellomy-Huckabee dynamic than usual. Todd Tickner provides a garrulous Henry and Alex Czajka a mortified Mortimer. These last two characters are there to essentially make fun of bad acting in the classic acting tradition, so you have actors acting bad acting. Hillary Michelle plays the Mute, or mime, part.
The Camarillo production also does a great job with the costumes, especially the Mute’s and Hucklebee’s. They don’t go the full Circe du Soleil - Comedia dell”Arte-influenced route of some of the more outlandish productions, but they do some of it with some bright colors and costumes in line with the country carnival approach to the set, giving the production a light, integrated look.
But this is a cast that is not trained in physical acting, in which case, when producing The Fantasticks it is wise to streamline and find ways to abbreviate all the physical sequences. The fight should be over in three seconds, the vision sequences re-conceived. Some productions have used projections for these, since a camera can overcome stage and acting limitations. Flying H Theatre in Ventura has used projected material to great effect along these lines. Pick up the pace in the second act, open up the set, let Jarvis dance, Harris jump and crawl, Ring stomp. Paint Michelle’s face, give her two semaphore flags for the wall, ask what a professional mime would do. Have more fun. Romp.
The Fantasticks, book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt, based on Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesques
Directed with set design by Michael McGraw
Starring Jeff Berg, Katy Jarvis, Parker Harris, Dale Alpert, Laura King, Hillary Michelle, Todd Tickner, Alex Czajka
produced by Kaelia Franklin with David Watkins as Musical Director; Laura Comstock, costume design; Leigh Puhek, lighting design; Angie Zamora, sound design, Kimberly Denmary, prop mistress, and Hannah Quinn, stage manager.
Presented by the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo, call 805.388.5716 for show times and information, skywayplayhouse.org.
Through 10 July 2016