“The Fantasticks” hadn’t even started and already the opening-night audience Wednesday at the Arizona Repertory Theatre Company’s production of the musical was seduced.
The character of the Mute traditionally moves some scene pieces around, represents the wall, and mostly stays out of the way.
But director Danny Gurwin has given a bigger voice to the Mute, played with complete charm by Brian Klimowski. Before the house lights go down and the play begins, he is involving the audience in magic tricks, a bit of juggling, and, in essence, creating a sense that imagination and illusion were key elements of the evening.
Once the play begins, the Mute is never far off reminding us — wordlessly, of course — that what we are seeing is a fantasy, but that what we are hearing is truth.
It’s easy to dismiss “The Fantasticks” as a simple love story. Or a sappy piece of theater. This production makes it clear that would be a mistake.
The story centers on Matt and Luisa (Cooper Hallstrom and Cecilia Iole) and their fathers’ attempt to bring them together by keeping them apart. But at its heart, the musical reminds us of the agony of love and its loss, and of how quickly the optimism of youth can be dashed.
Gurwin has kept the production remarkably simple, setting it in the 1950s and taking pains to make sure that the costumes and set (by Rebecca Niesen and Andrea Pratt respectively, both seniors at the UA) were faithful to the era. We are often reminded that we are seeing a play, but we are never taken away from the story.
Seconds into the play, Chris Okawa, who plays the narrator El Gallo, begins to sing the moving “Try to Remember.” It’s a gorgeous, bittersweet song and Okawa, who is a junior making his debut on the ART stage, gives it the life and poignancy it deserves. Okawa’s acting chops aren’t bad either — he will be great fun to watch in his last two years at the UA.
His wasn’t the only impressive talent on the stage — Hallstrom and Iole infused Matt and Luisa with the right touch of innocence, and when they’ve been exposed to the harsh realities of the world, a weariness that is still laced with hope.
David Hentz and Nathan Adriel Oppenheimer were having way too much fun — as, consequently, we did — as a duo of wandering actors for hire. They both had a fine sense of comedic timing, adding to the joy of watching the play.
Ryan Kleinman and Austin Wright give just the right amount of gravity and buffoonery to their roles as the fathers.
Gurwin staged this production in the round so that it had an almost merry-go-round feel to the musical. And he added sweet, imaginative touches, such as floating confetti fanned over the characters by the Mute that helped to bring a larger sense of whimsy and magic to an often dark and disturbing play.
“The Fantasticks” has had a long life because of its grace and beautiful music. Gurwin and these UA students underscored what is so delicious about it
See it, revel in it, cry a bit and, we’re willing to bet, you’ll jump to your feet as quickly as the opening-night audience did once the play was over.