The Fantasticks Brings Summer Theater to Newport

fantasticksWith an ever-increasing number of new theater companies cropping up, fewer and fewer spaces remain in which they can perform. Salve Regina’s Reggie Phoenix has sidestepped that limitation by facilitating the opening of Newport’s Casino Theatre to accommodate a college-professional hybrid production of The Fantasticks that succeeds fairly well and ushers in a glorious new playing space for RI theater in a gorgeous old location. The Casino’s street entrance is daunting to locate, tucked on a side street behind the Tennis Hall of Fame with easy to miss signage, but it’s worth the hunt. The modernized lobby gives way to a stately gem of a theater, resonating with years of history and sizable enough to host productions aspiring to more than black box dramas. Phoenix and company allowed Motif to attend a preview performance that offered a glimpse of what could be a grand entry into Newport’s theater offerings, bringing professional quality theater to the island while nurturing its student base (akin to RWU’s Barn Summer Theater programming ).

An extended mime opening that goes on just this side of too long (one expects that subsequent performances will see this intro whittled down to a manageable time) acts as something of an overture to The Fantasticks, a steamer trunk filled with costumes and props foreshadowing characters and events to come. Actors are planted in the audience so that when the “volunteers” are called for, our cast takes shape mostly from the meta-aware characters scattered throughout, a device that must work well in sizable houses. A nicely realized segment of sound and lighting ushers in a lovely reveal as the simple, but effective set and Jennifer Holden’s orchestra unfolds before us.

The Fantasticks is a simple tale, drawing on various myths and theatrical styles that are all glued together by memorable tunes that stick with us long after the performance has ended. Two feuding fathers (in this case, Phoenix has replaced one father with a mother, thus upping the cast’s female quantity to two – Fantasticks is one of the most produced plays in history, but doesn’t have much to offer for women performers) connive to get their kids to fall in love by staging a false feud and then hiring actor henchmen to stage an abduction that the young son can easily thwart. The plan is revealed, tempers flare, the young lovers part ways for a time and eventually reconcile after a little more life experience. Pippin updated the idea with a little more raunch and a lot more cynicism, but the tale is overly familiar, bordering on schmaltzy and really becomes a vehicle for the performers to show off their voices and range of stylistic abilities.

Jonathan Olivera’s El Gallo sets the tone with a beautiful “Try To Remember” and his swarthy, Inigo Montoya-like rascal of a narrator achieves a careful balance between sweet reverence and a wink. Peter Tedeschi and Melanie Souza (who were both seen in Ocean State’s My Fair Lady) are the two Equity ringers brought in to augment the Salve performers and do a fair job of making the feuding neighbors into a Carol Burnett-meets-Commedia dell’arte bit of buffoonery, but one wonders if non-union actors could have served the roles just as well and kept ticket prices more manageable for this new theater. Regardless, opportunities for Equity performers in RI are far and few between, so having this hybrid is an ambitious project with good intent. When Bellomy (Souza) and Tedeschi (Hucklebee) join Olivera for “It Depends On What You Pay,” they show their chops and experience to deliver one of the more insidiously fun numbers of the production.

El Gallo’s two hired hands, Henry and Mortimer, are an odd pairing, but highly amusing. Hunter Nicolson’s Henry is Don Quixote by way of Hamlet’s Player King and besides giving a strong performance, he gets to showcase another of Phoenix’s key players behind the scenes. Makeup master Joe Rossi transforms the young Nicolson into an old man with expert ease, allowing us to immerse ourselves in that transformation without having to suspend more disbelief than is comfortable. Evan Raiff’s Mortimer is oddly subdued, as if Raiff were under the weather on the night we attended, but has an understated charm nonetheless.

Mariana Bracciale’s Luisa is appropriately fetching and naïve with just the right touch of teenaged selfishness that makes the character approachable and slightly off-putting at the same time. Her interplay with her neighbor and on-off lover, Matt, is charming and sweet and everything Luisa is supposed to be. The real lynchpin of this production, however, is Matt Royalty-Lindman. His performance rides above the rest of the cast in terms of both quality and pace (there were many slow patches in this preview performance, which one assumes will tighten up as the run goes on) and even when his voice didn’t quite soar to the same heights as some of his castmates, his delivery more than sold every note. Numbers such as “Metaphor” and “I Can See It” (which also featured some very nice lighting by Pippin McGowan) were perfect examples of duets where Royalty-Lindman outshone his singing partner simply by force of presence. Not an Equity actor or a Salve student, he not only sets a new bar for the character of Matt, but for the entire production.

The Fantasticks may be dated for some and for others it’s a favorite bordering on cult status. But, for a maiden voyage for The Casino Theatre, it is entirely appropriate. A blend of styles with nods to various periods of theater history and a talented cast, orchestra and design staff, The Fantasticks serves as a hint of possibility in this space. Give yourself some extra time to find the place and get parking, and then wallow in some gorgeous summer theater in Newport.

The historic Casino Theatre in Newport presents The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Performances will be June 18-20 and 25-27 at 8 p.m., and June 20-21 and 27-28 at 2 p.m. at the Casino Theatre, 9 Freebody St. For tickets and reservations, call the box office at 401-341-2250 or visit www.tinyurl.com/salvecasino.

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