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With ‘The Fantasticks,’ StageWorks opens a musical to remember

THEATER PREVIEW

If I had a dollar for every time a theater writer started off a story about “The Fantasticks” with some variation on the phrase “Try to remember,” I could afford all the Broadway shows my heart desired. It’s a reference to the show’s most beloved song, of course, sung by Jerry Orbach in the role of El Gallo way back in the off-Broadway production of the musical in 1960. (The new StageWorks Fresno production opens Friday, April 6, at the Fresno Art Museum.)

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Meg Clark (as Luisa), left, Aaron Lowe (as Matt) and Terry Lewis (who plays the Narrator and El Gallo) in “The Fantasticks.” Photo / StageWorks Fresno

And I remember how heartbreaking that song felt after 9/11, thanks to those opening lines:

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh
so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember and if you remember
then follow
follow.

I was living in New York in 2002, and when September came around that year, with the intense reflection on the first anniversary of 9/11, the Times did a story about the almost prescient lyrics of “Try to Remember.” I’ve made the connection ever since. Perhaps that’s one of the keys to the longevity of “The Fantasticks” — it adapts to the times but also offers a nostalgic view of an earlier, simpler era.

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The show is famous for its original record-breaking off-Broadway run (an astounding 42 years and 17,162 performances, longer than the average life expectancy in early 19th Century England). But “The Fantasticks” hasn’t been produced much locally, at least in the past 15 or 20 years. Now audiences have a chance to experience a new version. The StageWorks Fresno production features a cast of veteran local performers known both for their acting chops and vocals.

Here’s a rundown:

The plot: There’s a “Romeo and Juliet” feel to the first part of this allegorical tale. Two young lovers, Luisa (Meg Clark) and Matt (Aaron Lowe), live across a property-dividing wall from each other. They think that their respective fathers (played by Joel Abels and Mark Standriff) are violently opposed to the match, but is that really the case? With its amiable, love-conquers-all story arc, the first act has a warm and comfy feel. In the second act, however, “real life” intervenes, Clark tells me. “Both of them go out and get hurt by the world,” she says.

The structure: The narrator (Terry Lewis) also plays the mysterious figure of El Gallo. He pops up on the scene to complicate the lives of the young lovers — and perhaps teach them a lesson. Lewis has an interesting take on this: If you’re familiar with the plot of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” — with a buoyant first act in which everything works out perfectly, and a more jarring second act that goes into full-on fractured-fairytale mode — you’ll notice a resemblance to “The Fantasticks,” he says. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sondheim was inspired by this show.”

The creative concept: Director J. Daniel Herring has envisioned the players in the production as a group of 1930s-era circus performers. (Matt and Luisa are envisioned as a tightrope-walker duo, while the fathers are obviously clowns, Clark says.) “The Fantasticks” has traditionally been bare-bones minimalist in terms of props and scenic design, but this production opts for a slightly less austere approach.

The importance of commedia dell’arte: This early form of theater, often associated with traveling groups of actors, relies heavily on stock characters and familiar storylines. The show has this nostalgic feel.

The music: Along with “Try to Remember,” which starts off the show, there are a number of beautiful tunes, including a tender solo by Luisa (“Much More”) and the duets “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” and “They Were You.” The accompaniment is written for piano (played by Tim Fletcher) and harp (Laura Porter) “They’re both wonderful musicians,” Lewis says. “We’re very lucky.”

And don’t forget two important supporting characters: The moon and sun are as integral to “The Fantasticks” as the storyline and songs. Which is no surprise for a play about love, life, joy, disappointment and the infinite variations of the human experience.


Show info

“The Fantasticks,” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 6, Bonner Auditorium, Fresno Art Museum. Tickets are $25-$28.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Jackie Ryle

    I love this show. Saw it many times in NYC. Cannot wait for this production with my favorite actors and director. Thanks, Donald, and StageWorks Fresno!

    reply
  • Pat Isom

    I’ve wanted to see this show since the 60’s. Finally did with 2 18 year old grandchildren who liked it. The vocalists were wonderful. And the pianist and harpist extraordinary. Loved seeing Jennifer Lewis, business manager who grew up with my children from the Lone Star area.

    reply

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