San Luis Obispo Little Theatre celebrates the 50th anniversary of “The Fantasticks” with a charming traditional production of the poetic fable about love and life.
“The Fantasticks” is known for being the longest-running musical in the world, as well as the most frequently produced show. There are artistic and practical reasons for its long life.
The story is simple, a young boy and girl fall in love, then out of love, then after a taste of the sometimes cruel world, fall in love again. It’s a timeless tale, told with lyrically rhyming dialog, memorable songs, and humorous moments.
A practical reason for the show’s popularity with theaters across the land is that it’s relatively easy to produce. There are no elaborate sets or large ensembles of singers and dancers. An intimate theater and a small cast of excellent actors and singers, such as those in the SLO Little Theatre production, can bring it to life. Directed by Mark Plater, this show is well cast.
The story opens with the play’s most enduring song, “Try to Remember” (the kind of September), sung by El Gallo, a bigger-than-life character who also serves as narrator-commentator. Steve Espinosa is just right for the role. Tall and handsome, he is dashing in a black toreador costume with a flowing red-lined cape. He has a strong voice, both speaking and singing.
El Gallo introduces the audience to 16-year-old Luisa, a dreamy girl, and Matt, the boy next door, enamored of her. Their fathers, gardening in their adjacent yards, appear to be enemies, and they build a wall to keep the young couple apart. But they are actually coconspirators plotting the marriage of their offspring, and they go to elaborate lengths to achieve it. In the second act, the dream fades and, as a song says, “what was scenic becomes cynic.”
The fated couple is cast with actors young enough to be believable. Elizabeth Premer plays Luisa as a sweet, innocent girl with romantic illusions. She gives her a floaty, almost melancholy character, and she has a lovely voice that often reaches operatic heights.
Gryphon Strom, a junior at Morro Bay High School, is Matt. He has a strong stage presence and a fine voice, while retaining a guileless youthfulness.
Larry Kaml and Bill Kirkpatrick are good as the fathers, likable and often funny, and they sing several clever, whimsical duets.
The fathers hire a pair of actors— who emerge from a trunk filled with props — to aid them in the plot to get Luisa and Matt together. Richard Dresp is an audience pleaser as Henry, an aged Shakespearean actor with creaky joints and a failing memory. He has a knack for comic body language. Jeff Meacham is also good as his sidekick, Mortimer, who is especially good at dying.
Max Kincade is in almost every scene, but he doesn’t say anything. He is the spritely Mute, playing the part of the wall, making it rain, and hanging up the moon and the sun with lively energy.
The songs are accompanied by an excellent live combo. Janice Johnson, pianist, Jennifer Sayre, harpist, and Shawn Collins, percussionist, perform behind a scrim. Linda Wilson is vocal director, and Melissa Barnett is choreographer.
The costumes by Sharon Woodside have a storybook quality that makes them timeless. The set, designed by director Plater and David Linfield, is also timeless — a parklike setting with trees and a few movable props.
“The Fantasticks” may be old fashioned, but it still tells a story that we want to hear, and today we may want to hear it more than we did 50 years ago: Life is rough, puzzling and sometimes cruel, but love and friendship are the touchstones that make it worthwhile.