The Fantasticks

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 16, 2009

Jeff Parker and Emma Rosenthal in Porchlight Music Theatre’s "The Fantasticks"
Jeff Parker and Emma Rosenthal in Porchlight Music Theatre’s "The Fantasticks"  

Lust, loss, love. These universal themes have rarely been more imaginatively - and entertainingly - explored than in the record-breaking international hit, The Fantasticks.

This well-worn musical concerns two young lovers who discover their seemingly happy romance has been designed by their scheming fathers. In their rebellious quests to explore what lies beyond, they ultimately learn what matters is each other.

And in director Sean Kelly's new production, he has rethought this age-old fable without sacrificing its charm. Gone is the 1950s naiveté that permeates most other productions, and in its place comes a modern sensibility that illuminates the idea that "ever after" comes with a price.

For example, rather than a chalk-faced Mute with a trunk full of silly props, an elegant woman (Tanya McBride), clad in a form-fitting black dress and dance shoes, swirls around and within the action to throw white rose petals or deftly move a chair.

Rather than a blonde ingénue in party pumps and tea skirt, Emma Rosenthal's Louisa ("The Girl") wears flats, leggings and seems to channel Punky Brewster.

Rather than a fresh-faced tenor in an elbow-patched sweater, Sean Effinger-Dean's Matt ("The Boy") appears to have walked in from a production of "Little Shop of Horrors," complete with polo shirt, browline spectacles and baseball cap.

And, I'm not sure if it was intended, but the young lovers' two dads, Hucklebee (Dan Ferretti) and Bellomy (Ryan Lanning) come off as slightly gay and much too young.

For me, some of it works and some of it doesn't. At times the interpretations seem a bit too self-aware and come dangerously close to mocking the material. But, as a whole, Porchlight Music Theatre's production continues the group's tradition of producing quality musical theatre in new and creative ways.

As the show is so bare in its theatrical elements, it's critical the actors are equipped to tell this deceptively simple story in a clear and direct way, which also includes singing the rangy Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones score. These actors do very well here. As a pleasant surprise, Effinger-Dean even accompanies himself on the piano during "Soon It's Gonna Rain."

Driving the narrative, Jeff Parker's slap-sticky and swaggering El Gallo proves again why he's one of Chicago's premier leading men. It's a mature, confident performance that grounds the show. I do wish he'd sing out a bit more in his contemplative delivery of "Try to Remember."

My only significant reservation was William Raffeld as Henry, the old actor. Now, here is a role that calls for broad strokes. I've seen previous productions where Henry's monologue/audition for El Gallo stopped the show. This doesn't happen here. While adequate, the afternoon I saw it, Raffeld didn't seem entirely comfortable with his lines or his direction.

The creative team of Ian Zywica (sets) and Izumi Inaba (costumes) keeps things appropriately colorful and streamlined, with the only significant elements on the stage being a grand piano and a harp (both expertly played by Tom King Clear and Jennifer Ruggieri). While this is one of the barest productions of the show I've seen, John Horan's intricate lighting design manages to create unexpected dimension and visual interest.

Porchlight Music Theatre's production of The Fantasticks runs through November 15, 2009 at the Theatre Building Chicago. For tickets and more information, visit

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at