By Mary Boyle
Hucklebee and Bellamy are fathers, gardeners, neighbors—and enemies. The high wall between their properties is a sure sign of their feud, but it won't keep their children, Matt and Luisa, apart! How like Romeo and his Juliet they are, whispering sweet nothings to each other over the wall; knowing all along that their fathers would be so angry if they knew what they were up to...or would they? Perhaps there is no feud at all. Perhaps the wall is only there to create a sense of drama. Perhaps these two fathers have learned that the quickest way to get children to do something you want them to do is to tell them "No!" This is the premise behind Off-Broadway's longest running musical, The Fantasticks, and you'll understand why it's been so popular when you see the fantastic production of it by In Tandem Theatre Company in Milwaukee.
The Fantasticks was the first musical written and composed by the American songwriting duo of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, but this Off-Broadway production outshone their two Broadway shows that followed: 110 in the Shade, which won the duo a Tony Award nomination for Best Composer and Lyricist, and I Do! I Do!, which gave them another nomination for Best Composer and Lyricist, as well as a nomination for Best Musical. Despite its small cast, simple staging, and positively tiny orchestra, the Off-Broadway production ran from 1960 to 2002, charming audiences over 17,000 times.
Directed by Jane Flieller, Co-Founder of In Tandem, and with Music Direction by Josh Robinson, In Tandem's production of The Fantasticks is excellently cast, and features some of Milwaukee's best talent. Andrew Varela (who was seen earlier this season in The Rep's Guys & Dolls, and last season in Skylight's Sweeny Todd) makes his In Tandem debut as El Gallo, the narrator and suave, debonair actor the two fathers hire to help stage a dramatic ending to the feud that will bring their two children together, at last. Matt Daniels (who was also seen in Guys & Dolls, as well as in A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at First Stage this season) is Hucklebee, the father of Matt, played by Keegan Siebken (seen in Twelfth Night (Drunk) at Bard & Bourbon earlier this season). Chris Flieller (who was seen in Scrooge in Rouge with In Tandem this past season) is Bellamy, the father of Luisa, played by Susan Wiedmeyer (who was a hit in Carnival with In Tandem last season). Robert Spencer, who played Matt in the Off-Broadway production for two years, comes full circle as Henry, an aged actor who, along with his assistant, Mortimer, played by Austin Dorman, are hired by El Gallo to assist in the staging. Finally, although she says nothing at all, Mary C. McLellen is the Mute, an on-stage stage manager who helps move the production along.
Although The Fantasticks could be considered vintage, the story is timeless, and the music is compelling, though it is accompanied only by Mary E. Keppeler on the harp and Josh Robinson on piano at the side of the stage. Ranging from outrageously funny to poignantly beautiful, the songs are truly a reflection of the musical, itself. Daniels and Flieller, as Hucklebee and Bellamy, work wonderfully together, and their duet, "Never Say No," is a laugh-out-loud anthem every parent can relate to. Varela is the perfect El Gallo: comedic, yet appropriately somber when needed, and so very smooth in both voice and attitude. Wiedmeyer's voice is angelic, and pairs beautifully with Siebken's, but her ability to play the engenue and to be both thoughtless and thoughtful is what makes her shine in this production. Robert Spencer's Henry is priceless, and he utterly steals the show when he takes the stage, while still managing to allow Dorman's Mortimer to stand out in his In Tandem debut.
"Popular" is a bit of an understatement when describing The Fantasticks: this Off-Broadway hit had a successful Off-Broadway revival in 2006—only four years after its first, record-breaking run—that only just ended last year. See it for yourself, and you'll understand why: like all great stories, this story has a simple truth hidden underneath—though it really sneaks up on you unexpectedly, in this one. Everything is fun and funny and then, quite suddenly, $#!+ gets real, so to speak. Just as in life, The Fantasticks teaches us a hard lesson, but we come back all the wiser and, while we see the world more clearly, it still manages to be as beautiful as we only imagined it to be before.
The Fantasticks runs through May 20th at the Tenth Street Theater, located at 628 N. 10th Street in Milwaukee. Tickets are available by calling the Box Office at (414) 271-1371, or online at www.intandemtheatre.org.
About In Tandem Theatre
In Tandem Theatre, a 501(c)3 nonprofit theatre located in Milwaukee, was founded in 1998 by Chris and Jane Flieller with the commitment to produce exciting, innovative and professional live theatre by presenting creative and eclectic programming that enlightens, inspires, provokes, and entertains a diverse audience in an intimate atmosphere. Its name, In Tandem Theatre, reflects the connection between audience and actor, the audience and the written word – an intimate experience obtained when live audiences are engaged in strong storytelling. In Tandem Theatre is committed to creating innovative, exciting live theatre designed to inspire, enlighten, provoke and entertain a diverse audience through comedy, drama, musicals, classics and new works.