What’s fantastic about The Fantasticks, upcoming show for White Rock Players Club (April 12 to 30) at the Oceana PARC Playhouse?
For one thing, it’s a legendary 1960 musical that beat all the odds by running, continuously, for 42 years off Broadway.
A defiantly small-scale allegory about life, love, and the many stages of human experience, it benefits from a poetic book and lyrics by Tom Jones (not to be confused with the Welsh pop singer) that draws on everything from Elizabethan theatre, Brecht musicals and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and a folk, jazz and modern classical-influenced score composed by Harvey Schmidt (”Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow…”)
A show that eschews many of the familiar gambits of more cookie-cutter stage musicals of its time, The Fantasticks became a yardstick for creating potent theatrical magic out of highly limited resources.
Jones and Schmidt built it to conjure a compelling universality and telling moments primarily through the skill of the players, weaving in and around a minimalist stage setting that can, and does, represent many things in the imaginations of the audience.
Among virtues of the current White Rock version is that it brings together the estimable talents of Kaden Chad, Scotia Browner, Oliver Gold, Reginald Pillay, Cheryl Mullen, Peter Stainton, Emma Rose Gold and Adrian Shaffer, in a production overseen by Dianna Harvey (The Magic Flute – The Pantomime).
Driving the creative process is one of the show’s most passionate advocates – Kerry O’Donovan (frequent musical director of Players Club shows and other productions throughout B.C.) – as both director and musical director/pianist (who will work on stage with harpist Rosanna Chiu).
Loosely adapted from Edmond Rostand’s 1894 play, Les Romanesques, The Fantasticks follows the same basic storyline: two neighbours conspire to have their children fall in love by pretending to feud.
Their plan works: Matt (Gold) and Luisa (Browner) are smitten in spite of their fathers’ (Pillay and Mullen) apparent efforts to keep them apart by building a wall between their properties.
O’Donovan said his two leads have the right energy – and likeability – to portray youthful romance.
“I first met Scotia when I was the musical director for Theatre Under The Stars’ Oliver!…she was playing one of the orphans and she was nine years old. Since then she’s grown into this lovely, intelligent, talented young woman,”
“The Boy is such a hard part to cast – really what you need is just a nice normal guy, and Oliver is great at that.
“It was Scotia who suggested him for the role – they’re best friends in real life, who met when they were cast as Amaryllis and Winthrop in a production of The Music Man.”
Casting Mullen opposite Pillay as one of the ‘fathers’ is not intended as a deliberate casting statement, O’Donovan noted.
“Making them a mother and a father would have changed the dynamic too much,” he said. “And she and Reg have such a wonderful chemistry anyway.”
As narrator (Kaden Chad, last seen as Lancelot in the Players Club’s Spamalot) offers a charming entree into a world of “moonlight and magic” as the WRPC press release phrases it – but, in the guise of the ‘bandit’ El Gallo, is there to teach Matt and Luisa the bitter truth that “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”
“Kaden brings a great presence to the role – and a lovely rich baritone,” O’Donovan said. “He also has a great sense of humour which he utilizes in the part.”
Helping weave the tale are two “helpful but bumbling actors” – the wool-gathering Henry and Mortimer, who specializes in death scenes – played by Stainton and Emma Rose Gold, and The Mute, played by Shaffer.
“Peter is someone I’ve known since I was 15 years old, when we were both in Anne of Green Gables for Royal City Musical Theatre, and he does a great job with the role, while Emma is actually Oliver’s sister. She didn’t tell him she was auditioning, and basically nailed the comedy timing needed for the part,” O’Donovan said.
“The Mute is possibly the most important role in the show,” O’Donovan added, noting that Shaffer – despite their youth, a veteran of numerous Players Club productions, is providing consistently interesting choices in the role, while not falling into the pitfall of portraying the character as a Marcel Marceau-style mime.
“I’ve seen it done that way and it just ends up being distracting and disturbing,” O’ Donovan said.
“The Mute is the first person on stage and the last person to leave. There are moments when they seem to be controlling things. It could be argued that everyone on stage is being manifested by them. Are they God, or some other kind of supreme being?”
O’Donovan says that while he is open to exploring such possibilities he sees his primary task as allowing the inherent magic of the show to happen, rather than trampling on its fragility by attempting to impose an inflexible interpretation – a trap other productions have fallen into.
If anybody knows the show front to back it’s O’Donovan – the last time it was produced at the same theatre, a quarter century ago, he played Matt as well as serving as musical director (his first assignment in that category).
That was for a long-defunct Surrey production group to which O’Donovan had gravitated after serving a long apprenticeship with Fraser Valley Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s summer camp productions, and performing in high school shows at Earl Marriott Secondary.
“Then I did it at Capilano University in 2002 – we were in the big theatre they have there,” he said, noting that it was a passion project for a seniors’ group who could afford some heavyweight talent including Canadian theatre legend Tom Kerr as director and Valerie Easton as choreographer.
But O’Donovan said he’d already fallen in love with the show years before that, when he saw a student production at Douglas College. Such a fan is he, that he made the ultimate pilgrimage to see The Fantasticks in New York in 2000 – in its 40th year of production – at the same Sullivan Street Playhouse where it made its debut in 1960.
The theatre was a long narrow space accommodating only a few rows of seats – but O’Donovan could see in an instant why the venue had dictated such an intimate show.,
“From where I sat four or five rows back you could see every single expression on every actor’s face, and the pianist was literally playing with his back right to the wall,” he said.
“When the actors weren’t ‘on’, they were sitting on the other side of the stage with their backs to the audience.”
The director can recite, chapter and verse, the many stages the play went through from Jones first attempts – at the University of New Mexico – to adapt the Rostand story as a large-scale Rodgers and Hammerstein-esque Western musical, then saddled with the ungainly title ‘Joy Comes To Deadhorse’.
That might have had trouble running 42 performances – let alone 42 years – but suffice it to say that a series of serendipitous events, including Jones and Schmidt relocating to Greenwich Village, and coming under the spell of everything from beat poetry and Leonard Bernstein to Commedia del’ Arte and Elizabethan theatre, combined to create an enduring classic that is now one of the most produced shows in the world.
O’Donovan counts himself fortunate, he said, to be able to work on this passion project with a “hand-picked cast” and producer Harvey.
“I’ve always wanted to do my own version of The Fantasticks and it’s entirely thanks to Dianna that I’m doing it now,” he said.
“Every single person in the show brings offers to the table,” he said. “They try things I hadn’t thought of, and I’ll go ‘that’s a good idea – I’ll take credit for that!’”
The Oceana PARC Playhouse is located at 1532 Johnston Rd.
For tickets ($35 adults, $30 youth or $25 for both on April 12 and 13 previews) visit firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-536-7535.
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