Sunday, April 10, 2016

"The Fantasticks" at Nautilus Music-Theater

It may be spring (almost) outside, but inside Nautilus Music-Theater's tiny studio space in Lowertown St. Paul, it's most definitely September. The kind of September "where grass is green and grain is yellow," and "no one weeps except the willow." A lovely hopeful youthful September that slowly fades into a wiser, darker, and nostalgic December. While Nautilus is primarily dedicated to developing new works of music-theater, with their newest full production (which are few and far between, their last one was almost three years ago), they are presenting a new take on the longest running musical in the world. 56 years ago, The Fantasticks was just the kind of piece that Nautilus would have developed, supported, and produced - an inventive piece of music-theater storytelling that pushes the envelope of what the genre can do. While that glow of newness and inventiveness has somewhat faded over the years, Nautilus is bringing it back in a new way with age-conscious and gender-conscious casting, and by presenting the piece as it originally was - in an intimate small-scale setting that allows the simple beauty and humor of the piece to shine. With limited seating and only 12 performances, make plans soon for this rare opportunity to see this classic musical performed by some of the Twin Cities best theater artists up close and personal.

The Fantasticks is comprised of two distinct acts. In the first act, we see young (more on that later) love blossom and grow between a 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old boy who are neighbors and children of seemingly rivalrous men (more on that later too). But what they don't know is that their fathers are scheming to get the two wed, using a bit of reverse psychology and hiring the bandit El Gallo to create a ruckus in which the boy comes out the hero. All is well under the moonlight and happy endings are achieved. But that's only Act I, and with Act II comes the harsh glare of the sun, like reality settling in after a honeymoon. The boy and girl go their separate ways and follow their dreams of seeing the wide world, only to come back together with a new appreciation for each other. For "without a hurt the heart is hollow."

Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr
(photo courtesy of Nautilus Music-Theater)
This story of love, parent-child relationships, time, youth, wisdom, world weariness, and nostalgia is seen with fresh eyes due to the ingenius casting. The young lovers are played by two beloved veterans of Twin Cities stages, Wendy Lehr and Gary Briggle, who are over 60 and have been married (to each other) for 33 years. Wendy is able to play the hopeful and silly girlishness of the dreamy Luisa in a way that makes you believe in her youth and naivete, at the same time appreciating the wisdom gained in the life she's lived. In the same way Gary is believable as the brash and confident young man, with an even more realistic transformation in the second act to the world-weary man who's seen too much. The real-life love between the two of them is evident and a beautiful to witness in the lovely romantic songs "Metaphor (You Are Love)," "They Were You," and "Soon It's Gonna Rain."

While the casting of Wendy and Gary brings a new perspective to the themes of youth, wisdom, and the passage of time, the casting of the fabulous Baldwin sisters as their fathers brings a new perspective to the theme of parenthood. The words written for two fathers work just as well for mothers, because after all, a parent is a parent regardless of gender. Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin both have young children of their own, bringing a poignancy to "Never Say No" and "Plant a Radish," yet they're singing about fully grown adults who are older than they are, hinting at the role reversal that happens when parents age. In addition to all these layers, it's always a good idea to cast as many Baldwins as you can in a show. Two Baldwin sisters are better than the sum of their parts; they're never more relaxed, natural, and funny than when performing together. And their individually gorgeous voices blend like a dream, like one person singing harmony with herself.

Completing the perfection of this six-person cast, directed by Nautilus Artistic Director Ben Krywosz, are William Gilness as El Gallo and Brian Sostek as "the actor who dies." A lot. And hysterically, as he uses his dancer's grace to flaunt and flail all over the stage dying in numerous ways, stealing every scene he's in. William is simply spellbinding as El Gallo (a role created by Broadway, film, and TV legend Jerry Orbach) when he recites the poignant and lyrical dialogue, and especially when singing the most famous song from the show that bookends the story, "Try to Remember" (the one I've been quoting throughout this post).

Nautilus' studio space has been transformed into a thrust stage with just a few rows of seating on three sides of the tiny turf-covered square that is the stage. The two large wooden posts in the space could be a hindrance, but are incorporated well into the set, serving as ladders that the actors climb on when height is needed. A simple bench, two moveable boxes, and a rope lowered from the ceiling to represent the wall are the only set pieces (set design by Victoria Petrovich). The two-piece orchestra consisting of Music Director Jerry Rubino on piano and Andrea Stern on harp is positioned on an elevated platform behind and above the seats on one side of the thrust (getting those massive instruments up there must have been a difficult task!). This sparse orchestration provides just the right level of accompaniment for this lovely and whimsical score. And there's nothing better in the world than hearing talented vocalists such as this unmiked in a small space, nothing to get in the way of their voice in your ears.

The Fantasticks is the little Off-Broadway musical that could, and was once the future of music-theater. Now 56 years later it's more than just a charming relic from the past. In Nautilus' hands with thoughtful casting of some of the Twin Cities top talent in roles they probably thought they'd never play (again), and intimate sparse staging, it's fresh and utterly delightful storytelling, tinged with nostalgia and poignancy. Continuing through April 19 - get your tickets now before they're gone!

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.