Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: New vigor in ‘The Fantasticks' in Oshkosh

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre

OSHKOSH, Wis. -  

A tall young man dressed in black moves to the front of the stage. With tattoos up and down his bare arms, he has a roguish look. He seems to know something as he sings.

Try to remember the kind of September…

The young man is at the lip of the stage. The audience is feet away. The young man looks into eyes and continues singing.

… when life was slow and oh, so mellow.

The hands of the white-haired woman in the row in front of me lift to her face. It is clear she has heard the song before, probably many times. The white-haired woman is wiping tears.

The first minute of Saturday night’s performance of University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre’s production of “The Fantasticks” is a reminder, for me, how moving and powerful this American classic musical is.

“The Fantasticks” tells so much about youth and love and the folly of youth and parenting and time and timelessness and the value of experience and the fact that there is stuff you simply can’t do anything about. The show’s take on life is oh, so knowing.

“The Fantasticks” has been put on exactly one zillion times since it arrived in 1960. It has played in 82 countries. The original production’s cost was a staggering $950 – staggering for how economical something that has such wide impact could be made. This information is from displays in alcoves of hallways at Fredric March Theatre that enhances all UW-Oshkosh Theatre mainstage productions. Good stuff.

The basic story is a boy and a girl who grew up as neighbors have found love. Now 20 and 16, respectively, they keep their mutual admiration society secret, lest their parental units tear them apart. Meantime, their parental units have built a wall, feigning a feud, as they try to drive the boy and girl together. The kids wouldn’t follow their wishes, anyway. Soon, the parental units decide their children could use a dose of worldliness. They hire a mercenary whose line is mock abductions. The girl is “abducted,” and the boy “heroically” “saves” her. (Okay, this is theater and fanciful). The boy and girl marry and live happily ever after to the end of Act I. In Act II come hard-earned lessons.

Directed by Merlaine Angwall, the UW-Oshkosh Theatre production of “The Fantasticks” has twists. There are two major ones.

One. The parental units are mothers rather than the fathers of the original version (and countless others since then). The switch works. Mother or father, a parental unit has common goals for her or his child unit. The switch also works because times have changed. One mother refers to being a Navy veteran. This is more likely in 2017 than 1960. Not everything in this gender switch is changed. In the great song “Plant a Radish,” the line still is this: “A man who plants a garden is a very happy man.” No acceptable alternative single-syllable word for “woman” can be found.

Two. The backdrop is that of a traveling sideshow. El Gallo, that guy in black who is a key character in the show, is envisioned as a fortune teller and hypnotist. His trailer promotes his act with this sequence: “Failed Love Life, Unlucky at Cards, Can’t Quit Smoking, Lost Confidence, Seek Help Within.” Gaudy banners display such scenes as a woman with a python act and a dashing fellow in a daring knife-throwing act – the kind of dazzle that attracts youth. The glitz banners are up for Act I, to me representing all-is-pizzazz, youthful takes on life. In Act II, the banners are gone, replaced by clotheslines filled with under garments. To me, that represents the underwear of life being hung out for all to see.

This production includes some extra oomph in song and movement, with Herb Berendsen and Ashley Rockwood brought in as music director and choreographer, respectively. So the cast sounds and looks like it’s with it.

Assured performances are all around, with special demands on Matthew Peplinski as the wise bandit El Gallo and, in voice, Kate Sawyer and Matthew Beecher as the girl and boy. Of note, Autumn Christensen cuts a striking image as The Mute, who glides around the stage (dance is a forte for her) with all-knowing expressions.

From the telling first minute to the last, the production – in its own ways – does justice to an important show in the phalanx of American musical theater.

***

Creative: Based on “Les Romanesques” by Edmund Rostand: book and lyrics – Tom Jones; music – Harvey Schmidt; director – Merlaine Angwall; musical director – Herb Berendsen; choreographer – Ashley Rockwood; costume designer – Kathleen Donnelly; lighting design – Mick Alderson; scenic design – Roy Hoglund; production dramaturg – Alec Lefeber

Cast: El Gallo – Matthew Peplinski; Luisa – Kate Sawyer; Matt – Matthew Beecher; Hucklebee – Hannah Olsen; Bellomy – Molly Hennig; Henry – Garret Johnson; Mortimer – Parker Sweeney; The Mute – Autumn Christensen

Orchestra: Piano – Herb Berendsen; keyboard – Jonathan Glowcheski

Running time: Two hours

Remaining performance: 2 p.m. today, Sunday, Nov. 19

Info: theatre.uwosh.edu/the-fantasticks/

***

Musical numbers

Act I

“Try to Remember” – El Gallo, Luisa, Matt, Hucklebee, Bellomy

“Luisa’s Introduction” – El Gallo, Luisa

“Bird Magic” – Luisa

“Much More” – Luisa

“Matt’s Introduction” – El Gallo, Matt

“The Wall” – El Gallo

“I’ll Marry” – Matt

“Bell’s Introduction” – El Gallo, Bellomy

“Ladder” – Huckleby, Bellomy

“Never Say No” – Hucklebee, Bellomy

“It Depends on What You Pay” – El Gallo, Hucklebee, Bellomy

“It Depends on What You Pay” (Reprise) – Hucklebee, Bellomy

“Moonlight #1” – El Gallo

“Moonlight #2” – El Gallo

“In the Glen” – Luisa, Matt

“Soon It’s Gonna Rain” – Matt, Luisa

“Abduction Ballet” – Company

“After the Ballet” – El Gallo, Henry, Mortimer

“Happy Ending” – El Gallo, Luisa, Matt, Hucklebee, Bellomy

Act II

“Opening Act II” – Mute

“This Plum is Too Ripe” – Matt, Luisa, Hucklebee, Bellomy, Mute

“The Quarrel” – Luisa, Matt

“I Can See It” – Matt, El Gallo

 “An Episode” – Henry, Mortimer

“Rebuilding the Wall #1” – Mute, Hucklebee, Bellomy

“Rebuilding the Wall #2” – Mute, Hucklebee, Bellomy

“Plant a Radish” – Hucklebee, Bellomy

“Much More” (Reprise) – El Gallo, Luisa

“Round and Round” – El Gallo, Luisa, Company

“Distant Carousel” – El Gallo, Luisa, Mute

“Beyond That Road” – El Gallo, Matt

“Paradox” – El Gallo

“They Were You” – Matt, Luisa

“Metaphor” – Luisa, Matt

“Try to Remember” (Reprise) – El Gallo, Luisa, Matt, Hucklebee, Bellomy

***

NEXT: “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire, Feb. 15-18.

THE VENUE: The 498-seat Fredric March Theatre includes a traditional proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage, which is especially wide. Leg room is abundant. The acoustics are crisp for the spoken voice in plays.

THE PERSON: Fredric March was a famous actor who was born in 1897 in Racine. March had no direct connection with UW-Oshkosh prior to the naming of the theater. He earned the honor due to the respect for his level of performance on Broadway and film – and being from Wisconsin. March and his wife attended the grand opening. March earned best actor Oscars for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He earned three Oscar nominations.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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