"You wonder how these things begin
Director: Phil Murphy
'The Fantasticks' a fine OTP season debut
by Rick Gould
Record-Eagle staff writer
"The Fantasticks" has returned to Traverse City's
Old Town Playhouse mainstage after 25 years, opening the 2003-2004 season.
The musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, is a tale of young love between Matt and Luisa, the boy and girl next door -- to each other, yet. Their widowed fathers use reverse psychology by literally building a wall between them to fan the romantic flame. Here, fathers don't know best and things don't go according to plan.
Subtlety is the key to "The Fantasticks," with its simple story, small cast, suggested set and limited musical accompaniment. Director Phil Murphy strives to give a faithful rendition of the piece and succeeds admirably.
In today's world of theme park-style entertainment, where audiences are programmed to expect special effects in stage musicals, Murphy demonstrates what a talented cast, charming lyrics, beautiful music and a clever set can achieve -- to engage the imagination of the audience while entertaining them. What a concept.
The more memorable tunes, such as "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain" are beautifully performed. But other songs such as the clever "It Depends On What You Can Pay" or the earthy wisdom of "Plant a Radish," also shine.
The simplicity of the show is also a challenge for the talent involved with "The Fantasticks". The performers are literally on stage at all times, even when not "performing." And everyone involved rises to the challenge admirably.
Martin Wolf and Phil Murphy have a great rapport as the fathers Bellomy and Hucklebee, playing their roles warmly and effortlessly.
Don Kuehlhorn, as the sympathetic villain El Gallo, uses his commanding voice to great comic, dramatic and musical effect. Al Lien and Melissa O'Keefe offer broad skilled comic relief as El Gallo's henchmen, Henry and Mortimer. Heidi Kelsey is The Mute, sort of the keeper of the wall that stands between the young lovers. With no dialogue, Kelsey uses her expressive face to convey her reactions to turns in the story.
Matt Archibald and Sarna Salzman play the ingénue rolls, Matt and Luisa. While they aren't 20 and 16, they perform with sincerity. Archibald plays his role straightforwardly and possesses a strong singing voice. Salzman admirably navigates Luisa's mercurial charm, theatricality and immaturity and she, too, shines in the musical numbers. (Note: Harry Gillen will play Matt in the show's Sept. 21 matinee performance.)
The music, with only a piano and harp, was well-performed by Linda Davis and Marielle Smith, respectively. They will be sharing the duties with Susan Snyder Nunn (piano) and Sylvia Norris (harp), both local instructors and performers.
The costumes are given whimsical comic flair by Kathy Verstraete. The romantic leads are in squeaky-clean white from head to toe, the bad guy El Gallo in gaucho getup complete with swirling black cape. The set's props are few but fun. A colorful stage-side trunk holds both props and performers, for instance.
What keeps "The Fantasticks" timeless is its simplicity in presenting universal themes -- first love, familial relationships and youthful yearning to get out in the world. And the hands involved in this Old Town Playhouse production succeed to help perpetuate the show's 45-year legacy.
Performance dates for "The Fantasticks" are today through Sunday, along with Sept. 18-21 and 25-27. Show times are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. on the two Sundays, Sept. 14 and 21. Tickets are now on sale for $18, with special $16 rates on Thursday nights for students and seniors and $12 children's tickets on Thursdays and Sundays.
Reservations can be made by calling 947-2443, contacting the Playhouse on-line at www.oldtownplayhouse.com or visiting the box office at 148 E. 8th St. between 4 and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and two hours prior to show time on weekends.
Memorable September - Old Town Playhouse opens "The Fantasticks"
Record-eagle - Mike Norton, staff writer.
TRAVERSE CITY - Phil Murphy doesn't have to try very hard to remember that time in September 1978, when , days were hot and grass was yellow. And when the Old Town Playhouse had no air conditionin That was the year the playhouse mounted its first production of "The Fantasticks," the sweetly evocative play by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones that's become the world's longest-running musical. Murphy was cast in that production in the lead role of Matt, and he remembers rehearsals when the heat would routinely climb to 110 degrees. I "We knocked a hole in the back wall and stuck a fan in it, and it was absolutely no help whatsoever," he said.
A lot has changed in the last 25 years. The former church at Eighth and Cass has undergone extension renovations, and audiences no longer have to swelter in
the summer heat. But "The Fantasticks" returns to the Playhouse mainstage today as the opening show of the 2003-2004 season- and this time Murphy will be
"We do have one returning actor, Marty Wolf, who was in that original production and is also appearing in this one," he said. "I may end up with a part, too,
because one of my cast members had to pull out at the last moment."
Loosely based on an 1894 play by Edmond Rostand, "The Fantasticks" is a simple story of love, innocence and wisdom played out by a small cast (a boy, a girl, two fathers, and a wall) on a bare-bones set that consists of a wooden platform and a tattered paper moon, with an orchestra limited to piano and harp.
Nevertheless, since its premiere at New York's Sullivan Street Playhouse on May 3,1960, "The Fantasticks" has been performed in over 17,000 productions worldwide, in more than 5,000 American communities and 80 foreign countries. Audiences continue to be charmed by its timeless, almost magical qualities as
well as such classic tunes as "Try to Remember," and "Soon It's Gonna Rain."
"The Fantasticks" was the first collaboration by Schmidt and Jones, who began working together as students at the University of Texas. (They later went ' on to
write "110 In The Shade," "I Do, I Do" and "Celebration" together.) Originally staged at Barnard College in 1959 as a one-act musical called "Joy Comes to Dead Horse," the show was later rewritten and - thankfully - given a new name.
"The Fantasticks" tells the story of an adolescent romance between two next- door neighbors, Matt and Luisa, and the ways their conniving widowed parents
devise for pairing them up and launching them toward marital bliss.
"It's a deceptive show," said Murphy, who's doubling as the show's vocal director. "People often misinterpret its simplicity and think it's an easy show to do. But it's actually very difficult musi cally, and its very simplicity calls on a lot of extra skills from the cast. You have to make something out of every moment."
Murphy ran into that particular problem when he was casting the current production. A gratifying number of young actors showed up to audition for the parts
of young Matt and Luisa. Although they were the right age for the roles, many of them lacked the necessary life experience to properly interpret the characters.
In addition to the well-seasoned Wolf, the cast of "The Fantasticks" includes some other veteran Playhouse performers of all ages: Don Kuehlhorn, Matt Archibald, Sarna Salzman, Al Lien, Melissa O'Keefe, Heidi Kelsey and Harry Gillen. The show is being produced by Andrea
"We've followed the script totally, trying to preserve the sensibility that has served this play so well, and the actors are learning to talk to the audience a lot
nrore than they expected they would," said Murphy. "I tell them, 'The audience is always your best buddy."'
Performance dates for "The Fantasticks" are today and Saturday, along with Sept. 11-14, 18-21 and 25-27. Showtimes are at 8 p,m. Thursday through Saturday
and 3 p.m. on the two Sundays, Sept. 14 and 21. Tickets are now on sale for $18, with special $16 rates on Thursday nights for students and seniors and $12 children's tickets on Thursdays and Sundays. Reservations can be made by calling 947-2443, contact ing the Playhouse on-line at
www.oldtownplayhouse.com or visiting the box office at 148 E. Eighth St.
September 29, 2003
All done! It is the Monday after closing and we have turned our stage over to the next production, "Chicago". What a relief! This has been the most difficult production i have ever worked on. I don't have a specific reason for it, just that i have struggled the entire way. Of well, maybe i am getting old(doubtful) or maybe all our difficulties, which were finally resolved, kept me sufficiently off square that i couldn't focus on the play. Whatever, it is done and we move on. The show sold moderately. We wondered why it didn't sell better but haven't come up with a good reason. It is the longeest running play on Broadway so it should have been known to our morket. Now that it is history, we will never know. On to "Chicago"!
September 22, 2003
The end is in sight! We have one weekend left. This last week end we found out that our "Matt" has a conflict that prevents him from performing closing night. Fortunately, we have an understudy for this role. Normally, we do not understudy roles. We find that our short rehearsal schedule(8 weeks) does not allow for enough rehearsal time for one actor let alone two. We have rarely gotten hurt by this strategy. This show, however, we knew that "Matt" may not be available for a performance because his new child was due during the run of the show. Momma delivered early. Yet we did have an understudy for the blessed event. Because our understudy worked hard to be prepared in case we needed him, we let him have his show Sunday.
He had limited rehearsals and didn't get to perform in front of an audience until his show but he presented very well. Now that he is experienced with the role and the audience's reactions, he will have a far better show and... he will have more fun. Only three performances left to get it right!
September 19, 2003
Finally crossed the halfway mark in this production. When we opened last night,Thursday, we had more plays in the can, so to speak, then we have left to perform. It will always be a bitter sweet moment when we have no more performances. It takes a lot of time to put a show together. One can get involved as much as one wants. It takes 8 weeks to make the set, actors, musicians and play space one. The hours are uncountable ranging from company rehearsal to private rehearsal to sleepless nights of worry whether the lines will ever come together. By the end of the run, the show has become a part of our life. It ends so fast! Right now we are halfway through. Still not quite thinking of the last performance and the cast party and the empty hole where theater used to live. Thank goodness for the next show. Some of us are working that one!
September 8, 2003
Whew... we finally opened! Our dress rehearsal was less than inspiring. I did not like what i did on opening night! Those two nights seemed slow and choppy to me. I was not confident. Of course we got through it so that was a good thing. The others played very well. I am really harsh on myself... as we all are. Saturday was another story all together!
We were told that the reviewer was in the audience. Mind you, we play as best we can every show. No audience should see a show different or worse than any other show. However, knowing that the reviewer is out there does send a shot of adrenaline through the 'ol spine. It is something to work for. I try not to read the review until after the run of the play because i know it is just a review. We have nothing to compare the Playhouse to except Broadway and that is not a fair comparison. Yet, to have the reviewer in the house is a challenge. We met the challenge and gave one heck of a performance. We'll see if the reveiwer agrees. I do know the harder pressure for rme came the night before. We had an audience member who i know played El Gallo several years ago. I know he was supportive but he did know all the lines! It was intimidating! Now we run!
Last night we had our dress rehearsal. This is a performance with a small audience but still under the guise of rehearsal. We can mess up and not feel as bad as when we are in front of paying customers. We, also, find out where our laughs may come and where they will not come. All in all, we had a very successful night. I can share with you the yours truly found two gapping holes in his monologues and songs. Fortunately, I can revisit the book before performance tonight and fix them. We found other glitches as well, but I am sure they will be corrected by tonight.
If the tone of my journal seems less than excited it is because of the difficulties we have endured. Cast changes, set accomodations and other difficulties have all taken a toll on the entire cast. It is so much easier to not have problems but then when we finish tonights' performance it will all be worth it.
Tonight we finish the few remaining scenes we have to block. Tomorrow we begin running the entire show. Last, week we had discussions about how soon it was to performance. We neer have enough time anyway but with personnel changes and some interruptions from other shows, we thought that we'd be lucky to get a week of rehearsals in. Now, we are blessed with two weeks(more or less) of run throughs to get all the kinks out. Rehearsals are good only until you run the entire show., Then you find out what the timing of stage moves are and the proper communications with the others on stage. We are in really good shape on this show. But auditions are tonight for Chicago and that may pull some focus for actors in this show who'd like to be in that show. oh well, that's theater!!
August 20, '03
If you didn't notice then i will tell you, we have a new cast member. Due to circumstances Andrea had to drop out of the play and our director, Phil Murphy, looks like the player of the hour. We are just people and life makes its demands on us when life wants to and not when convenient for us. So with three weeks to go in the rehearsal schedule, Phil seems to be the only one who, realistically, can step into the role. I am sure he didn't intend to work past dress rehearsal night but now that is all in the past. The rest of the cast must buckle down to help Phil both direct our play and rehearse his own role. We have done it before and we will do it again.
August 14, '03
Our first run through of act 1! The good news is we made it through...finally. There is no bad news!
We are expected to rehearse our blocking and lines as much as we can. Once we have received our blocking from the director we must take the initiative to learn on our own. We can call the others to rehearse with us but it falls to the individual actor to make sure his/her blocking and lines are prepared. We do not have th luxury of 8 hours for rehearsal each day. Our rehearsal schedule calls for 3 hours, four nights a week. Enough time for Phil to give us direction and just the littlest of review. We must take the rest off hours. Transferring the off hours work, which was learned in the shower, driving to and from work or just sitting at a desk memorizing, to action on stage with blocking is a real difficult thing to do.If you do your homework, it goes a little easier. Our first run through went a lot easier. Act 2 tongiht!
August 12, '03
Day after my birthday and i didn't even get the night off! We have about three weeks to get this play up and running. Plenty of time, as i have always said. But another interruption to our schedule has occured. Now we must keep our stage clean while the Misssoula Children's theaer rehearses their play for this year.
Missoula is an annual thing at OTP. They arrive in a little red truck and cast, this year, 58 children. Then , in a week, they present a play. Quite i fantastick production in it's own right. Unfortunately, we must wait on our set until after they have left. Fortunately our set is so slim that we will not have to work hard to get it constructed and learn to move on it. I will tell you how we fare after WEdnesday's rehearsal where we must be "off book" for the first act. Always an interesting time!
August 8 '03
I have been on vacation and just busy. I haven't had time to start a journal for this show, but that is all in the past now.
We are well into rehearsals by the calendar... our rehearsal started right after auditions. Unfortunately, we had things like vacations and other interruptions that meant only last week did some of us actually start rehearsal. That means a little extra work for me to catch up with the others. I did manage to memorize my songs while i flew about the country and drove for almost 1200 miles. That helps when we block each number. Next week we must be off book for act 1. This wouldn't be so bad save the time off.
The cast looks really strong for this play. Again, this is an ensemble... no "star" just all essential performers. When Heidi accepted the role of Mute she wasn't sure if there was a lot to do. When you watch her you, too, will find that she is the busiest of us all! However, she is off book!
This time of the year is perhaps the toughest rehearsal/performance slot of our season. The weather outside is gorgeous, even on the rainy days. It takes a lot of convincing to come into the theater to practice for 3 hours a night, four nights a week. Thank goodness Phil hasn't made us come in for Sunday rehearsals or he might have a revolt on his hands.