I’ve had the opening line to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land stuck in my head the last several days: “April is the cruelest month.” Given the cold, blustery day I found myself at Nautilus Theater to see The Fantasticks, it was fitting. But this lovely play took me out of April’s cold cruelty and right into the warm, romantic days of September.
In this production, director Ben Krywosz breathes new life into this classic show with shifting the typical casting. The lovers Matt and Luisa are played real-life partners Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr, taking on roles meant for ingenue/ juvenile actors. Seeing established actors play these parts is a dream come true – I’m a massive fan of their work and the nuances they bring to younger characters being older and more worldly is brilliant. Playing the parts of the fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy are Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin. Having these roles taken on by women makes these characters more focused on being parents and guardians, rather than playing into any patriarchal roles or gender-specific parenting attitudes. William Gilness is suave and cunning as the narrator, El Gallo, and Brian Sostek is a delight as the Actor Who Dies. This all-star cast has marvelous chemistry and, in this fable-like musical, portray the story with poise and mastery.
Nautilus’ intimate theater space – though small it may be – works brilliantly for this stripped-down production. The simple but lovely set designed by Victoria Petrovich and built by John Hegge is clever and captures the fantastic nature of the story without a lot of bells and whistles. The music, directed by Jerry Rubino, is performed by piano and harp and balances wonderfully with the vocal ranges of the cast, as well as having some wonderfully done transposing (according to the talk-back afterwards sticking to the original keys despite the different ranges for the fathers).
This show is an absolute delight. Attending on an industry night, it was wonderful to hear the discussion afterwards of how the story not only resonated with the audience, but the use of different generational casting, allowing for a deeper romantic story to take place that looks at how age affects relationships and how different roles are performed based on age. From the moment “Try to Remember” begins at the top of the show, I was swept off my feet into a delightful, poignant, heartfelt world that truthfully acknowledges the difficulties of growth and changes in relationships. With El Gallo’s throwing Matt and Luisa into a world no longer full of simple romance but also cruelty, and hardship, the show grapples with the struggles of growing up, the harshness of the world, and also the ability of relationships to grow back together even after heartbreak. This musical is full of hope and, in the cruelness of April, there’s nothing more marvelous than remembering September.
The Fantasticks is playing at Nautilus Musical Theater in lowertown St. Paul now through April 19th. Ticket and show information can be found on Nautilus Theater’s website.