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February 15, 2005 > The Fantastic 'Fantasticks'

The Fantastic 'Fantasticks'

by Veronica Velasquez

"A lot of the time when you go through life, you have to feel the bad times to grow," said John Ramirez, 13, of Newark, upon seeing the Stage One production of "The Fantasticks" last Friday at Newark Memorial High School, an astute observation from one so young.

Since this play is about young people, it's good to know that the newest generation of theater-goers can appreciate it, and even wax philosophical about it.

"The Fantasticks," directed by Barbara Williams and presented by Stage One, is an adaptation of the original play, written by Tom Jones, with music by Harvey Schmidt. The musical first debuted in Greenwich Village in 1960, and remains the longest-running musical in history.

The story is about a boy and a girl who next door to each other and fall in love. Their respective parents seem completely opposed to the idea, and construct a wall between the two abodes, in an extreme measure to nip the romance in the bud. In the face of opposition, the young couple's resolve deepens, and they steal away at every opportunity to be alone. Little do they know that it is all happening according to plan, for their parents arrange the matchmaking to achieve a merger between the two households. But how to end the feud?

Enter the bandit.

Landing with a whisper of cape and a jangle of castanets is El Gallo, Spanish bandit for hire. As debonair as Ricardo Montalban on his best days, El Gallo is here to save the day. He offers a plan of deception that is sure to work, ensuring a "Happy Ending," like the banner says.

Swooping around in his black cape and matching hat like an overgrown... well, rooster, El Gallo (Dan Kapler) exudes romanticism, radiates passion and oozes with a dapper fashion sense. He thinks he is everything a dashing villain should be: dashing, of course, handsome, dark, and mysterious. He is also a vain drama queen. In the big battle scene between El Gallo and Matt, El Gallo takes a fatal hit, and dies...and dies...and dies. In a seemingly perpetual death shuffle, Kapler hams it up with every ounce of self-indulgent acting he can squeeze in. Kapler is completely comedic in these scenes, but he also commands a compelling presence in character. When El Gallo kisses your hand and tells you to go with him, you go with him, senorita!

"El Gallo is absolutely perfect in his character," said Marilyn Kamelgarn of Livermore.

Erin Reis plays Luisa, a vivacious, enamored 15-year-old girl who sees her young beau as a sort of superman. Reis, who was struck with an unfortunate bout of laryngitis, was forced to lip-synch her singing parts, in true "the show must go on" style. Taking over for temporary vocal duties was Megan Gallup who was able to fill in on opening night.

Addressing the audience before the show, director Barbara Williams shared the fact that the original production suffered the exact same mishap 45 years ago. "And look what it did for them," Williams said, to good-natured laughter.

Despite her unfortunate illness, Reis' performance shone with its usual dazzle. The formidably talented actress, who has starred in past productions of "Les Miserables," "Surface Transit" and "Chicago" among others, did not disappoint in her leading role. She played the part of a lively young girl with the gusto of a...well, of a lively young girl. Life imitates art, and in this case, Reis translates it back admirably.

Reis delivers her role with quirky confidence, as she twirls and mugs and pouts her way through teenage wasteland. It's almost as if she doesn't need her voice, lovely as it is, for expression, portraying her character with body language and facial expressions superbly. It is a real treat watching the 16-year-old blaze her way through her accomplished acting career.

Leading man Rick Webster (Matt) is also convincing. From the start, he is like a live wire, from his impassioned declarations of love to his magnificent, resounding voice to his larger-than-life body language. "The leading man has a glorious voice," said Kamelgard.

Jami Wallace and Doug Brook, who play neighbors Bellomy and Hucklebee, provide the backbone of the play. Wallace's comical character is the ideal vehicle for Brook's straight man, and they yin and yang it through each scene. Bellomy screeches and Hucklebee winces, but they seem to find their way to common ground, especially when they lament the trials and tribulations of the teenage years. "You never know what seed you've sown until it's nearly grown," Bellomy observes wryly.

Stealing the show are the two rogue actors, Henry and Mortimer, played respectively, by Ray Doherty and Jack Larson. The pair plays an ancient duo, which gets the audience rolling in the aisles from the moment they shakily unfold themselves and wobble out of the wardrobe trunk, resplendent in their threadbare doublets and long-johns. They totter about the stage, forgetting lines, flailing their arms about theatrically, and in one memorable scene, coming back to life to cheer on a fellow actor.

"Mortimer and Henry were just grand," declared Kamelgarn. "They got the biggest laugh when one of them stabbed himself (during the big fight scene)."

One complaint about "The Fantasticks" was the fact that the piano at times overpowered the actors' voices. Gallup, in particular, who was sitting beside the piano, seemed to suffer the most, as her voice, lilting and melodic, was buried by the piano chords.

With a comment about toning down the piano, Leendert Kamelgarn said, "I loved the show. I saw the original production in Greenwich Village back in 1960."

"There was nothing not to like," offered Willem Toft, 13, of Newark.

Tickets are $18 for general admission, $15 for advance purchase, $16 for college students and seniors, $10 for high school students (with a valid ID) and younger. Groups of 10 or more are $10 per person.

The play runs through Feb. 27, with performances Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., and matinees on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at Newark Memorial High School Theatre, 39375 Cedar Boulevard, Newark. For tickets call (510) 791-0287.

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