‘Fantasticks’ offer nostalgia and romance at Cider Mill

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

I came across a blurb in a 1925 edition of The New Yorker — one of the short paragraphs in the “Talk of the Town” section — that said In a Garden, a new play by Philip Barry, had “too many ideas to succeed.”

But in 1960, another show set in a garden, with a manageable set and set of ideas, absolutely succeeded — and still does. The Fantasticks — book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt’s (music) — is running through Feb.14 at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott. Tickets for this enduring cabaret-style musical would be nice to share with your Valentine, if you can get ’em.

Directed here by Ithaca College professor Lee Byron, The Fantasticks is a story about a boy, Matt (Matt Madden); a girl, Luisa (Keara Byron), and their scheming dads, Hucklebee and Bellomy (well played by R. Scott Williams and David Studwell, respectively). Madden and Byron are very cute together and have beautiful voices, but most memorable, from this critic’s perspective, is the collection of theatrical con-men, led by the narrator, El Gallo (Nicholas Carroll).  Carroll, who has a beautiful voice, opens and closes the show with the signature “Try to Remember,” joined also by the ensemble. 

I can’t say enough about the Cider Mill’s indefatigable Tim Mollen as Henry, a washed up character actor who can’t remember important Shakespearean lines, and his companion, Mortimer, played by New York City actor Stephen Humes, a master of physical comedy who has wonderful comic chemistry with Mollen. Their bits alone are worth the price of admission. I hope they will work together again some time.

One of the best roles for an actor here is carried by Abigail Mulligan as the Mute, who facilitates the action. It is fun to watch her say so much with just her face and actions. She works well in the spare set, designed by Tyler M. Perry.

Cast of The Fantasticks, courtesy of George Cannon Images

Cast of The Fantasticks, courtesy of George Cannon Images

It’s also amazing what you can do with a piano or two, so kudos to music director Tommy Iafrate and keyboardist,Will Sanders. Patrick Lachance’s sound design is great, and Richard St. LeClair’s costumes are fun and appropriate, too. Still trying to figure out how they got so much dust to come out of Henry’s doublet every time someone slapped him on the back.

Oh, and now that I’ve twice stage managed (for a much smaller company), huge congratulations to Jessica McCoy. I heard great things about her handling of the Cider Mill’s previous show, too, and it’s a thankless job.

The Fantasticks became the longest running show in off-Broadway history, ending its run in May of last year at the theater that bears the name of one of its original stars, Jerry Orbach. It is loosely based on The Romancers, a play by Edmond Rostand. The Fantasticks probably will forever be a favorite of small companies, because it will always be an economical, sentimental choice. It’s definitely dated, but that’s OK. Who doesn’t love nostalgia? The play has a gauzy, memory-drenched feeling and has been around long enough to evoke strong sentimental feelings for those who make it a point to see it every chance they get.

That said, if you had never seen it (and I hadn’t), you might have expected a number of memorable show-stoppers, but it’s just not that kind of show. Other than “Try to Remember,” there aren’t too many hummable tunes.  I liked “It Depends on What You Pay,” and I did hear a couple of local actors not in this production singing one of their favorites gleefully on the way out of the playhouse at the Jan. 29 performance. (Nice job, Heidi Weeks and Mark Roth! Now, what were you singing again?)

The production christens the Cider Mill’s first year as a house where actors can earn points toward membership in Actors’ Equity, the union for actors who make some (or ideally all) of their living in the industry. The Cider Mill Playhouse is now the only theatrical entity in Broome County where this is possible. Artistic Director Gail Belokur puts it this way in the program: “The playhouse continues its mission to engage theatre professionals — both emerging and established, local and national.”

IF YOU GO: Performances of The Fantasticks will be 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 14 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2. S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Call the box office at 607-748-7363 or go online to http://cidermillplayhouse.org.

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