Sunday, July 15, 2012

Palm Beach Dramaworks: The Fantasticks (7 reviews)

Palm Beach Dramaworks opened its production of The Fantasticks on July 13, 2012.
In this captivating love story about a boy, a girl, two fathers and a wall, the narrator, El Gallo, creates a world of moonlight and magic, then pain and disillusionment, until the boy and girl find their way back to each other. The score, which includes "Try to Remember," is as timeless as the story itself!
J. Barry Lewis directed a cast that included Jim Ballard, Jennifer Molly Bell, Cliff Burgess, Tangi Colombel, Dennis Creaghan, Cliff Goulet, Jacob Heimer, and Barry Tarallo.  Musical direction by Craig D. Ames.

Michelle Petrucci reviewed for BroadwayWorld:
This beautifully designed and crisply-performed version breathed new life into an aging show with such high potential to miss the mark. However, director J. Barry Lewis wisely reminds his audience that there is much more to this love story; that there lies a great deal of complexity amid its simplicity.
Jim Ballard’s El Gallo is just the right amount of creepy and his smooth voice makes his “Try to Remember” hard to forget. It was a pleasure to see a dancer in the role of Luisa.  Jennifer Molly Bell does a great job of making complete sense out of the childlike character, and Jacob Hiemer is an unapologetic and vibrant Matt with a spark of boyish charm. Barry Tarallo and Cliff Goulet are a joy to watch as the comic pair of fathers whose cleverly staged duets have you tapping your toes.

While the performances were excellent, this production’s success was in large part due to its creative team. A purposefully bare stage was smartly designed by Michael Amico to provide opportunities for seamless blocking and quick scene transformation. Craig Ames’ beautiful blend of voice, piano and harp is immediately noted during the opening, and John Hall’s lighting comes alive in “Round and Round” during the second act.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Dramaworks is giving its summertime loyalists a Fantasticks that is, well, fantastic. Artfully directed by J. Barry Lewis, with exquisite musical direction by Craig D. Ames, the production is beautifully sung by its cast of familiar South Florida actors and newcomers. With Ames at the piano and Kay Kemper playing the harp, a score full of familiar songs... is delivered with shimmering simplicity and purity.
Anchored by a dashing Jim Ballard as the roguish narrator El Gallo, the cast deftly navigates the show’s sweetness, humor and sobering second act. Soprano Jennifer Molly Bell is an always-appealing Luisa, never off-putting despite the 16-year-old’s flights of romantic fancy and teen self-absorption. Jacob Heimer is likewise engaging as know-it-all Matt, Luisa’s neighbor and would-be beau, and his duets with Bell on Metaphor, Soon It’s Gonna Rain and They Were You are grand.

Barry J. Tarallo as Luisa’s father Bellomy and Cliff Goulet as Matt’s father Hucklebee may look slightly goofy in their striped-and-checked getups from costume designer Brian O’Keefe, but their wonderful voices enrich the vocal blend as they scheme to have their kids fall in love by pretending to be enemies. Dennis Creaghan as the grandly hammy old actor Henry and Tangi Colombel as Henry’s sidekick Mortimer are clever clowns. And Cliff Burgess, though he speaks not a word in playing The Mute, proves the most versatile and communicative of actors...
...Dramaworks has built its reputation and a loyal audience by doing first-rate productions of all kinds of theater — recent and vintage works, plays and musicals, American and world classics. The Fantasticks adds to the company’s string of successes.
Hap Erstein reviewed for The Palm Beach Post:
Although it ran off-Broadway for 42 years — a total of 17,162 performances, more than any show in modern history — The Fantasticks is a very fragile piece of theater... Fortunately, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ J. Barry Lewis understands that directors embroider the show with added staging business at their peril.
Much of Matt and Luisa’s expressions of love border on purple poetry, as does El Gallo’s narration. Jacob Heimer and Jennifer Molly Bell deliver the former with exaggerated earnest, while Jim Ballard hits the right note of sinister chill with the latter.

Somehow, what sounds arch in book writer Tom Jones’s dialogue seems natural and affecting in his lyrics, paired so succinctly with Harvey Schmidt’s music on such numbers as the opening ballad Try to Remember, the love duet Soon It’s Gonna Rain and the jazzy male duet, I Can See It. The entire score is rendered simply, yet effectively by Craig D. Ames on piano and Kay Kemper on harp.
Lewis does not skimp on the show’s dark tones, but he also embraces its abundant comic relief. Barry Tarallo and Cliff Goulet all but steal the show as the two sage, but clownish fathers, capably handling the evening’s two vaudeville song-and-dance turns...
Out-buffooning them in support are Dennis Creaghan as a dithery old Shakespearean and Tangi Colombel as his sidekick Mortimer, who specializes in extravagant stage deaths. The most original performance, though, comes from Cliff Burgess as the stage-managing Mute, conveying plenty of attitude in his silence.
Jan Sjostrom reviewed for the Palm Beach Daily News:
The finely crafted production of The Fantasticks at Palm Beach Dramaworks is a good example of the maxim less is more. Director J. Barry Lewis’ pared-down approach suits the odd little musical and Palm Beach Dramaworks’ intimate stage.
The production is anchored by the magnificent Jim Ballard, playing El Gallo, the story’s mysterious master of ceremonies and villain. He’s a commanding presence, and his rich baritone voice invigorates all his tunes, but especially the old chestnut Try to Remember.
Among the production’s chief delights are the comic characters. Cliff Burgess as The Mute manages the minimalist props with grace and humor. Cliff Goulet as Matt’s father Hucklebee and Barry Tarallo as Luisa’s father Bellomy play the buffoons with panache, and display considerable song and dance skills in Never Say No and Plant a Radish.
This quirky show has enough brains to qualify as Dramaworks’ promised “theater to think about” and enough fun to recommend it as a fine summer outing.
Ron Levitt wrote for ENV Magazine:
...Palm Beach Dramaworks” director J. Barry Lewis put together a talented ensemble with stage presence  and rich voices for an A-One production to tell this wonderful tale about a young man and a young woman whose love is tested and triumphs.
If you’ve seen The Fantasticks before, it won’t matter.  Seeing  this production is like watching a new show,  thanks to astute direction, a cast with golden voices  who seem to be having a good time in their roles, plus the  artristry of musical director Craig  D. Adams, at the piano with an assist from harpist Kay Kemper.
Hunky Jim Ballard turns his Narrator gig into a memorable moment as he kicks off the music as a baritone-headliner singing Try To Remember.  He appears made to play this role.
...Jennifer  Molly Bell and Jacob Heimer – both display rich voices and believability... Their duets  are emotionally fulfilling.

The rest of the cast, as well, is played to perfection: Barry J. Tarallo and Cliff Goulet as the two fathers who  plot the romance,  South Florida favorites Dennis Creghan and Tangi Colombel who appear to having ball hamming up their roles  as aging actors, and Cliff Burgess  as a mute who becomes a prop-master, without saying a single line of dialog.
John Thomason reviewed for the Broward/Palm Beach New Times:
The show's egalitarian success is owed to the seemingly simple choreography and minimalist set design and musical score... For Palm Beach Dramaworks, which is known for its lavish scenic designs and exceptional rendering of difficult classics, to produce a show like this is akin to Martin Scorsese directing an episode of Two and Half Men. Weird, but it would probably be the best Two and Half Men episode you've ever seen.
The songs... are catchy, clever, and beautiful on their own, and they are the best part of this shapeless experiment. But otherwise, with its mix of Brechtian distancing devices, strained slapstick, and shambling storytelling, The Fantasticks never connects on an emotional level, and the humor is borderline pitiful. The show's abrasiveness, coupled with director J. Barry Lewis' unhurried pacing, can make for a long evening if you're not riding the musical's peculiar wavelength.
That said, there are plenty of reasons to see this production, a testament to Dramaworks' impeccable standard of quality. Dressed in one of Brian O'Keefe's many wonderful, nostalgic costumes, Ballard is outstanding as the bandit.
Bell completely inhabits her character's kooky-princess delusions, her voice reaching heavenly octaves, while Cliff Burgess, as the show's mute stagehand, manages to inject personality into what could have been a thankless role. And Tarallo and Goulet bring infectious chemistry to their unusual partnership.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s classic chamber musical is a refreshing tumbler of iced lemonade on a sweltering night in West Palm Beach, a cocktail of reassuring sweetness spiced with a tang of reproving caution.
The success is due to director J. Barry Lewis and musical director Craig D. Ames who understand exactly what the authors were going for and have applied everything they know to bring it out. Lewis, known for incisive analysis of complex dramas, invests his skill at detail in lightly adorning this musical with inventive bits of business and stagecraft that freshens the familiar fare.
Ames may be the strongest, unassailable force. He skillfully melded and guided the cast’s vocalizations in rehearsals.

With unflagging energy, the entire cast throws itself fearlessly and without a shred of self-consciousness into a tale of sentiment that would curdle at the hint of a wink.
Jim Ballard’s smoldering good looks, playful mien, soulful acting and rich baritone make for a charismatic narrator, leader of the troupe and the droll mastermind of the staged abduction of the heroine.
Jennifer Molly Bell, blessed with a delightful soprano that sparks “Much More,” and Jacob Heimer never shy away from the lovers’ intentionally overblown ecstasy and hubris, which makes their harsh comeuppance and reconciliation so effective.  Their sadder-but-wiser duet “They Were You,” is the most touching moment of the evening.

Barry J. Tarallo and Cliff Goulet are well-cast as a pair of baggy pants comedians masquerading as fathers, and save some praise for Cliff Burgess whose rubbery body language and soulful face as The Mute provides a Greek chorus of silent commentary.

The only crime is the joyful highway robbery of every scene by Dennis Creaghan and Tangi Colombel as the bedraggled, over-the-hill actors used by El Gallo as his decrepit supernumeraries. Creaghan’s hammy Shakespearean actor who cannot remember his lines and Colombel as an Indian who specializes in overblown death scenes are an unalloyed delight.

Michelle F. Solomon wrote for miamiartzine:
There are so many perfections in the Palm Beach Dramaworks' production, but perhaps where it shines the most is under the direction of J. Barry Lewis and the musical direction of Craig D. Ames. The pair shows mastery here of what resounds as a complete understanding of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical.
Every actor proves that they are just as invested in the Dramaworks production as the directors. Ballard is dashing as the sinister El Gallo and recalls Robert Goulet’s famous portrayal of The Bandit. Ballard, with his deep baritone, sets the tone off the top with his beautiful interpretation of what has become The Fantasticks most recognizable song, "Try to Remember."
Um, what?  Jerry Orbach is the actor most famous for playing El Gallo - he originated the role. And actor/singer Ed Ames is the one who had a chart hit with Try to Remember back in 1965. AH. According to Goulet's website, he did play El Gallo - in 1990, the 30th Anniversary National Tour production. Which happens to be when they replaced The Rape Song (It Depends On What You Pay) with the much weaker Abduction.  We learn something new every day. Where were we?
He has a difficult sell, however, but sell it he does, with one of the show's most problematic songs and one that has found numerous detractors (myself among them) through the years... "It Depends on What You Pay"...

Rape is an odd word in this comic musical about two young lovers. Even Mr. Jones has had his own call to consciousness over the years, and for the current New York revival has rewritten the song to replace the word "rape" with "abduction." In a professional capacity, I will leave my personal wincing at the stage door and acknowledge Dramaworks' choice to preserve and keep the original intact.
I was already looking forward to this production; now I literally can't wait.  As El Gallo says in the play, "I know you prefer Abduction, but the proper word is Rape."  It gives the song much more sting.
The wonderful chemistry between the ensemble is a pleasure to watch especially between Barry J. Tarralo and Cliff Goulet as The Fathers. They come off as the best of bar buddies and their duets are some of the show's highlights. Dennis Creaghan as the dusty (literally) old theater salt named Henry and Tangi Colombel as his sidekick, Mortimer, provide some clownish comic relief and are definite crowd pleasers.
As the young lovers, Jennifer Molly Bell as Luisa and Jacob Heimer as Matt are a joy.... Burgess as The Mute never says a word throughout the two hour play, but offers some of the most expressive dialogue through his actions and mere presence.
Palm Beach Dramaworks' presentation of The Fantasticks is theater art at its best, and a summer production that's as picture perfect as a starry, starry night.
The Fantasticks plays at Palm Beach Dramaworks through August 5, 2012.

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