Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Take-away from MET's Fantasticks

the cast of MET's The Fantasticks
photo by Pam Pershing
by Jennifer Haaland

Mesa Encore Theatre (MET) opened their new production of the world's longest-running musical this weekend at Mesa Arts Center (MAC), and it was 'fantasticks.'  The 1960 Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones show The Fantasticks has endured since 1960 because it so well embraces the importance of making big art on a small stage.

With well-loved standards like "Try to Remember" and "Never Say No,"  The Fantasticks tells a simple love story of Matt (Josh Egbert) and Luisa (Tiana Marks).  The young couple's  affections are stoked by their fathers pretending to feud.  When the elaborate deception--that has included hiring actors to stage Luisa's abduction so Matt can seem the hero--is revealed, the lovers' infatuation withers and they separate.

MET's production benefitted from a traditional, sparse set design that included the requisite metal pole on which to hang a cardboard moon.  Likewise, the music crew numbered just three --a small upright piano, a gorgeous full-sized harp played by Juliana Scholl and Kris Van Slyke's trap set--but was potent in talent.

Musical director Lincoln Wright didn't just guide well his musicians and vocalists, he made the little practice piano at his disposal sing with style. Take, particularly, "This Plum is Too Ripe."  Its jazz slides and elisions worked beautifully.

Marks and Egbert steered their young lover characters securely between the hilt of melodrama and genuine emotion, too.  Especially, the required, overplayed sugar-coating during their "Metaphor" duet dissolved perfectly into genuine sincerity as they sang "Soon it's Gonna' Rain" later in the act.  That stripping away some surface glitz may both break them and help re-unite them hovered on the horizon of those lyrics.

The stage lit anew when Wayne Peck as The Old Actor entered from out of a prop box.  Each line he delivered was as funny as it was sweet.  His side-kick Mortimer (Timothy Pittman) provided excellent comedic support while The Mute's (Samantha Elise Tenant) brick-laying, mimed frustration drew giggles.

Rob Stuart's gentle croons--in "Try to Remember," and elsewhere--gave his puppet-master, narrator role a fresh dose of empathy that not many El Gallo's choose to exercise.  Some of the nicest staging that director KatiBelle Collins provided was El Gallo's puppetry movements with Matt and Luisa in the second act.

Mesa Encore Theatre coaxes new perspective for people tried by the mundane and stressful.  For nearly a century,  the company has provided Mesa performance and entertainment opportunities of and by the people.  The take away message of MET's The Fantasticks production endures.  Like the characters in the play, we all grow when our individual small stages are not just colored with grandiose and passionate art, but tempered by artistic slices of realism and empathy.

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