What else? Fantastick!

Riverfront’s Fantasticks abounds with strong performances and big laughs

The cast of <i>The Fantasticks</i> gives a strong performance.

The cast of The Fantasticks gives a strong performance.

Photo by Adrienne Rice

Rated 4.0

About five minutes into Riverfront Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks, I abandoned all my cranky cynicism and just let go. Once I did, the atmosphere turned magical in a very Mary Poppins/Sound of Music sort of way. In fact, if you envision Julie Andrews singing, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down,” you’ve got it.

The first act of The Fantasticks is the sugar. Next-door neighbors Luisa (Janine Burgener) and Matt (Tyler Dean) are the stereotypical teenagers you often see in plays; Matt is convinced he’s figured out the world, and Luisa daydreams about being a princess. Matt’s mother (Karen Chandler) and Luisa’s father (Lloyd Steinman) have been feuding for years for some unknown reason, and they’ve built a wall between their houses to keep the children apart. Of course, the wall only heightens the teens’ desire to be together, and they arrange secret moonlit meetings.

As it turns out, the parents have been planning this romance all along, knowing that if you tell your children to do something, they’ll always do the opposite. To seal the deal, they hire a professional bandit named El Gallo (Rod Hearn) and a couple of hack actors (Tony DeGeiso and Nick Ball) to pretend to abduct Luisa and thus allow Matt to save the day. The kids are in love, the wall comes tumbling down and everybody’s happy, right?

If you’re thinking how sickeningly sweet this sounds, you’re ready for act two: the medicine. The honeymoon’s over, both literally and figuratively, and everyone is starting to get on each other’s nerves. Matt is bitter that he hasn’t seen the world, and Luisa is disappointed that her knight’s armor is much less shiny by daylight. I won’t give away how it ends, except to quote one lyric that sums up the theme of the musical: “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”

Nearly every cast member gives a strong performance. Rod Hearn and Karen Chandler steal scenes together again, as they did in last year’s Riverfront production of Damn Yankees. They both have a gift for comic timing that makes funny lines so much funnier, and Chandler’s willingness to be unabashedly silly is always a treat. I can’t put my finger on what I liked so much about Tyler Dean’s performance, but maybe that’s because he does it all very well: singing, dancing, acting, you name it.

Janine Burgener played the ditzy dreamer Luisa quite well, and Tony DeGeiso hammed it up in style as actor Henry. Applause is also deserved for Lloyd Steinman as Luisa’s dad, but I can’t say that Nick Ball’s portrayal of the younger actor, Mortimer, was very interesting. I kept feeling that he needed to relax—and speak up!

The unsung hero of the stage will probably be dancer/choreographer L. Martina Young, who performs as The Mute—though in Young’s case, her role really should be called The Muse. Sometimes Young interprets the music with her body, adding depth and intensity to a song. Other times she is a participant—and often an instigator—passing out swords to hotheaded duelers and providing romantic rainfall with a bag of silvery glitter. Her movements are gorgeous or hilarious as needed, and always combined with a face so expressive that words are never necessary.