Bringing an allegory to life

Whether the lovers end up with a happy ending isn’t really the point; by show’s end you’ve gotten the message that “without the hurt the heart is hollow.”

So . . . when a character known only as “The Mute” and dressed in serviceable blue coveralls gets a round of applause just by taking the stage at the beginning of Act Two, you know the audience is clearly under the spell of The Fantasticks, the nearly 60-year-old musical now playing at San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre.

While the show is showing its age – creaking under the weight of some mid-20th century wordplay and stereotypical gender roles – the work of the very fine cast and crew brings what is essentially an allegory to life.

The Cast of The Fantasticks. Photo courtesy RyLo Media Design, Ryan C. Loyd

This show is absolutely worth the SLO REP price of admission, particularly if you have never seen this classic of musical theatre. Elliot Peters as The Mute (who is indeed without a voice – in a musical no less) earns his place center stage – even walking off with the show a few times during the evening. And the other players are no less engaging.

Tony Costa as El Gallo, the driving engine of this love story’s ups and downs, kicks off Act One giving rich and vibrant voice to the unforgettable song “Try to Remember.” Credit director David Carey Foster and musical director Mark Robertshaw with letting the words of the memorable song, here and in reprise at the conclusion of the show, simply carry the moment. In between, the directors give Costa, as well as the other actors with voices, more latitude of expression within the show’s lesser-known songs, all to audience-pleasing results.

El Gallo’s energetic duet “I Can See It” with Matt (Ashur Gharavi making his SLO REP debut) gives full vent to the melodramatic flourishes Foster and Robertshaw obviously encouraged in their cast. Matt, who begins Act One in puppy love with Luisa (Taylor Hart, also making her SLO REP debut), has by Act Two turned away from her, venturing out into the wider world, and El Gallo takes advantage of the separation. Whether the lovers end up with the happy ending he promises in Act One isn’t really the point; by the end of this two-hour performance (with intermission) you’ve gotten the message, directly or indirectly, that “without the hurt the heart is hollow.”

There is a bit of chaos evident in the second act musical number “Round and Round” that briefly sidetracks the forward motion of the production, but otherwise the show’s dependable music and lyrics carry the story along to its very pleasing conclusion. This show isn’t the world’s longest-running musical for nothing.

Phineas Peters as Mortimer, The Man Who Dies, and Mike Mesker as The Actor. Photo courtesy RyLo Media Design, Ryan C. Loyd

The fable that is The Fantasticks is dependent on perfect pairing, and in addition to the directors there are many complementary twosomes in this production. John Lambie and Billy Breed, as the scheming fathers with a shared goal, are dependably adept at making their differences slyly amusing. Mike Mesker and Phineas Peters are quite the duo of shysters, both having a sense of physical comedy, timing and elocution that could support a stand-up comedy routine all their own.

El Gallo and The Mute appear to share the load of pulling all the strings of the evening’s entertainment, but the real string-pullers in this production are a pair of behind-the-scenes artists, one a SLO REP veteran and the other a new and very welcome addition to the team.

That Kevin Harris found the time to coordinate the intricate lighting, sound and projection needed for this show while fulfilling his duties as managing artistic director of the company is a wonder indeed. Timing is everything (here a rousing shout-out to production stage manager Amanda Rose Johnson is in order). All these elements are handled skillfully and beautifully. 

“Beautiful” is the perfect word as well to describe the costuming. It’s not that the clothes themselves are particularly gorgeous, although costume designer Stephanie Joseph uses some rich, touchable fabrics in her SLO REP debut. It’s that the costumes beautifully express the fairy-tale quality of The Fantasticks. Their coordinated color scheme – broken only and appropriately by the jarring black and red of El Gallo’s wild wild west ensemble and The Mute’s functional navy blue – is evidence of the overall cohesion of this enjoyable production.

The Fantasticks plays now through October 13 at San Luis Repertory Theatre, 888 Morro Street, San Luis Obispo. Tickets HERE or call 805-786-2440.