Fanciful Fun in Theatre Factory’s “The Fantasticks”

By Eva Phillips

Good fences make good neighbors, and sturdy walls can make the most combustible of romances—just don’t expect those romances to be as sturdy or reliable. Theatre Factory’s latest production, The Fantasticks (book by Tom Jones (not that Tom Jones); music by Harvey Schmidt), is precocious, boisterous, and distinctly sentimental 1960 musical theatre staple, that examines one such curious, young romance formed around a wall erected by two fathers faking a feud for the sake of tricking their children into a marriage that they approve of (and, ultimately, can control from afar).

Laughably parsimonious, The Girl’s Father (aka Bellomy), is endlessly flummoxed and estranged by his daughter’s terminal whimsicality and fancifulness, and wants to ensure she lands a man who is practical, reliable, and, of course, not going to land him in any sort of financial peril. The Boy’s Father (aka Hucklebee), a consummate bumbling stubborn-ass, wants his son to do something useful with his life—like learn how to irrigate a lawn properly—and not let his overpriced college education lead him into a directionless marriage and life.  Bellomy and Hucklebee, dear friends, decide to build a wall and act as though the two are sworn enemies to drive their children together and assuage their anxieties—because, by their logic, children will do anything that’s forbidden.

The fathers’ plan works, at first, and The Girl (Luisa)—a 16-year-old dreamer obsessed with adventure, castles, and other fancies—and The Boy (Matt)—a 19-year-old biology major who is more consumed with romantic poetry and desirousness than a realistic future—fall foolishly in love. But after an abduction plot, a series of torturous travels with some ne’er-do-well actors, and a bandolero’s machinations, the Boy and Girl’s romance proves to be more complicated than anyone involved ever could have imagined.

(L to R): Carolyn Jerz (The Girl), Joseph Milliren (The Girl’s Father), Caitlin Cherry (The Mute/The Wall), Tom Sarp (The Narrator/El Gallo), Bill Fisher (The Boy’s Father), and Ty Kinter (The Boy).

Theatre Factory’s take on The Fantasticks is a consistently charming, generally winsome production that makes brilliant use of its multi-talented cast. Director and Choreographer James Critchfield flexes his nimble theatrical muscles throughout this show, demonstrating both an intimate appreciate for and knowledge of the material, and a tremendous understanding of his cast member’s various strengths, and how to best draw them out throughout the story. Critchfield makes the most out of a minimalistic set, effectively designed by Sarah Elizabeth Bender, and gracefully navigates through The Fantasticks unique device of a play within a play. Rarely do I enjoy shows in which all spoken dialogue is rhymed or in iambs, as they too often seem self-congratulatory for their own cleverness, but Critchfield’s Fantasticks refreshingly proved to be the exception to my rule.

Aided by Kirk Howe’s skillful musical direction, and the excellent instrumental work of Howe (Keyboard 1) Beth Minda (Keyboard 2), Dave Minda (Bass Guitar), and Jesse Wall (Percussion), the performers of Theatre Factory’s latest production dazzle and elate throughout the many silly twists and turns. Fantasticks is wonderfully cast across the board, replete with performers whose vocal abilities match their exuberant on-stage presences. Carolyn Jerz’s turn as The Girl (Luisa), is absolutely stupendous, and Jerz’s dynamic voice and unshakeable confidence on stage is a joy to watch and will carry her through an undoubtedly prosperous

Ty Kinter (The Boy), Tom Sarp (The Narrator/El Gallo), and Carolyn Jerz (The Girl)

theatrical future. As the narrator/bandolero El Gallo, Tom Sarp is relentlessly funny and effortlessly charming, moving the story along with bravado and panache. And as the two meddling fathers, Bill Fisher (The Boy’s Father) and Joseph Milliren (The Girl’s Father) exude vintage-charm that makes a show like Fantasticks successful and engaging—they are delightful as a curmudgeonly but lovable odd couple.

There are, as one might expect with a male-written musical from the ‘60s, some indelicate topics and content that does not age well in The Fantasticks—like jokes around sexual assault and questionable identity politics-based humor. While this material could stand to be updated and renovated—which could easily be done without sacrificing core of the story—Theatre Factory’s production does its best to massage some of the unsightly outdated bits of Tom Jones’ original material.

Theatre Factory’s Fantasticks explodes with charm and talent, and is, overall, a joy to watch—it is a delightful revisit for fans of the original, and a wonderful introduction for newcomers. The Fantasticks runs through October 27th at Theatre Factory’s studio in Trafford, PA. For tickets and more information, visit their homepage.

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