By Patsy Isenberg and Tom Travis
A festive conclusion of The Rep’s final presentation of the season, The Fantasticks, opened to an appreciative full house Friday, June 3. The iconic musical is the longest-running production in the history of the American stage and one of the most frequently produced musicals in the world. The Rep’s production, while respectful of that history, also offers something different.
A pre-show reception welcomed everyone with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. Afterwards, more treats: champagne and dessert, served in perfect weather for sitting or standing at the tables set up outside.
It was all in celebration of the premiere of a bold new version of the much beloved show, just in time for Pride Month: a new love story with an LGBTQIA flavor.
The theatre was packed, and with only a few empty seats after intermission. The actors seemed to have their lines and songs down. Yet even for seasoned actors opening night is a mix of new energy provided by a live audience.
For the first time the actors get to hear and feel the physical reaction to their lines and actions. You could see the actors come alive with even more vigor in their acting as the audience reacted to them during the evening. The laughter and applause from the audience was robust.
“The Fantasticks,” which opened off-Broadway in May, 1960, became a favorite of Michael Lluberes, now producing artistic director of the Rep. Over the years, he got the idea to adapt the musical into a love story between two boys rather than a love story between a boy and a girl, as in the original version.
In his adaptation, Lluberes changed several other aspects as well. The original features the fathers of the two kids. But in Lluberes’ version the fathers are replaced by mothers.
Lluberes created his rewrite with full permission of the original author of both the play and the book, Tom Jones, who’s now 94. Not only did Lluberes get his permission, but the two collaborated on it together.
Originally, Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote “The Fantasticks” for a summer theatre production at Barnard College. They wrote several other musicals together such as “I Do, I Do!” That one starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston and was a big success on Broadway. “The Fantasticks” received an Obie Award and a special Tony Award.
In the program given out at The Rep, the biographies of the two men include this, “Jones and Schmidt were inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theatre and their ‘stars’ were added to the Off-Broadway Walk of Fame outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre. In 2012 they were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and in December of 2017 they received the Oscar Hammerstein Award.”
The most familiar song in the musical is “Try to Remember,” now a classic. (Caution: ear worm potential), but it goes like this:
“Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Follow, follow, follow”
You know. you’ve heard it.
It was performed several times during the performance and the “follow, follow, follow …” was often repeated by the whole cast, serving as a kind of haunting echo.
The Rep’s Vision
On entering The Elgood Theatre at The Rep, the stage set is always something to look forward to because this company always does such a good job of it. But this time it was very surprising. The set is all white, with no furnishings other than a claw-footed bathtub on wheels. It was very minimalistic and stark. Curious. But it worked very well for what was to come.
What was to come was a magical, almost surreal, story featuring an odd group of characters living out a series of strange circumstances involving the matchup of these two boys. And at several places during the show rainbow colors were used for props, lighting and even a costume here and there. This stood out beautifully against the white backgrounds. And something else interesting in the set was a window higher up against the backdrop that opened and closed where many of the characters would appear.
The odd group of characters mentioned include the two boys and their mothers all with normal clothing. There was also a mystical man dressed in black who orchestrated everything and seemed to have all the answers. Then there was a woman dressed all in white who was mute and just walked around tossing glittery rainbow confetti around wherever the main action was occurring. And partway through the play, a drag queen and her partner show up. These two also had a lot to do with orchestrating the action.
And, as in most love stories, there are conflicts and breakups and uncertainties that arise. No spoilers here though.
The adaptation by Jones and Lluberes
EVM asked Lluberes if the rewrite with the focus on a gay couple was as easy or as difficult as he expected. He said he was surprised how easy it was. Lluberes, who is also a playwright, said he’d thought about doing this for years, partly because the girl of the couple reminded him of a “young gay boy from a small town.” The girl in the original is “outrageous, from a small town, and wears her grandmother’s glue paste necklace all the time, thinks it’s really real, and hugs herself until her arms turn blue and doesn’t want to be awkward or afraid,”
To Lluberes, this description read how a young gay kid from a small town might also be described. He said he felt that the original play illustrates how, when you fall in love for the first time, you discover who you are from that experience, and that is a main theme in this play: self-discovery, gay or straight.
The only thing that changed about the music, Lluberes said, was that the key had to be lowered for one of the boys and raised for the mothers because their voices are higher. But the cherished lyrics remain the same.
In the director’s notes Lluberes describes the characters as “people who live their lives in a fantasy world. It celebrates it and also deals with the consequences of it. The show is a parable about falling in love and growing up. All of the characters have a secret fantasy life where they live out who they really are and are ultimately confronted with reality.”
One of the boys, Matt, the somewhat older, more down-to-earth and responsible one who is surprised to fall in love with the boy next door, is played by Jeremiah Porter. Porter is a recent graduate of Texas State’s Musical Theater program. He’s done “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Producers,” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Porter told EVM that his “day job” is fencing. He laughed as he clarified that it wasn’t the sword-fighting type of fencing. But, ironically, his character has a few scenes in the “The Fantasticks” when he learns sword fighting from the man in black (El Gallo).
The other boy is younger, impractical and prone to “flights of fancy.” He is played by New York-based Neil McCaffrey who has been in Broadway productions such as “Billy Elliot,” Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Mary Poppins.” McCaffrey plays Lewis, the girl role in the original story, Luisa.
Both of the actors playing the couple in love are new to The Rep.
Lewis’s mother, Hattie Mae, is played by Diane Hill who also has an impressive resume but is new to The Rep. She’s no stranger to Michigan, though, because she attended Wayne State University to obtain a Ph.D in Theatre and earned a Master of Arts in Theatre from the University of Michigan. She offered a thank-you to fellow cast member Jason Briggs for introducing her to, in her words, “director extraordinaire Lluberes and the entire dream team at Flint Rep.”
Matt’s mother, Mildred, is played by Catherine Shaffner. She lives in Richmond, Virginia but growing up had visited Michigan often for summer vacations. She’s been in numerous plays and is an award-winner as are several members of the cast.
El Gallo (the man in black) is played by Ben Cherry who has been in productions nationally including Broadway and Off-Broadway and also in Oslo. He received a MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) award for Best Debut and has appeared on TV. He received his training at the University of Michigan and North Carolina School of the Arts.
A very familiar face in this production is Janet Haley. But the audience didn’t get to hear her voice in “The Fantasticks” since she played “The Mute,” the woman in white who doesn’t speak. This is very different role for Haley because, in most of her roles that EVM has reviewed, her voice has been instrumental in developing her characters.
The role of the mute played by Haley was acted out with precision as she moved around the stage carrying props for actors to use and creating scenes by imitating a wall at one point between the two sets of characters, Lewis and his mother and Matt and his mother. The mute threw countless amounts of colored confetti during the play some representing cold weather, rain and snow and at one point red confetti representing blood. The confetti decorated the stage throughout the remainder of the play.
Haley’s Rep roles are memorable and numerous. She received Wilde Awards for “Best Actress in a Drama” for both Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Beatrice in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” She’s been in many Shakespeare productions that “run the spectrum of maids, mothers, madwomen and magicians” and won another Wilde Award for playing of “Jaques” in Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of “As You Like It.” Haley is also an associate professor of theatre at the UM-Flint.
Another actor familiar to Rep audiences is Jason Briggs. It can’t be said that he is a familiar face though because he plays the role of Henry, the lead drag queen in this “The Fantasticks.” He is so expertly made up and costumed, and embodies the character so thoroughly, that he was unrecognizable. But Briggs has been in some of The Rep’s best, such as “Into the Woods” and “Assassins.” He’s been in other theatre company’s works as well. Briggs has done Shakespeare plays such as “The Tempest,” and “Measure for Measure” as well as other of his favorites such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Dreamgirls.” Currently Briggs is the Managing Director of The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, Michigan.
The drag queen who accompanies Henry is Mortimer, played by Richard Payton. Mortimer isn’t quite as flamboyant as Henry but is clearly Henry’s “partner in crime.” Again, no spoilers. Payton has a BFA in musical theatre from Syracuse University. He’s performed at many other theaters in the area such as Two Muses, Planet Ant, Open Book, Magenta Giraffe, Slipstream Theatre Nova, Tipping Point, Detroit Mercy Theatre Company, Detroit’s City Theatre and Music Hall.
The team who made it happen
Most of the creative team for the Rep’s production live outside the Flint area, but many have done work at The Rep in the past. Brad Willcuts (choreographer, new to The Rep); Shane Cinal (scenic designer, a Rep veteran); Chelsie McPhilimy (lighting designer, a Rep veteran); Brandon R. McWilliams (costume designer, new to The Rep); Melissa Collins (stage manager, new to The Rep); and Nicole Samsel (general manager, new to The Rep) all created a place for the play to exist.
A special shoutout to Brian Buckner, the music director and pianist, who provided the accompaniment on piano throughout. This role can sometimes be overlooked, and accompanists are unsung heroes, but a lot of credit goes to him.
But the biggest shoutout of all goes to Lluberes for taking on the collaboration with the original author, Tom Jones. “The Fantasticks,” has been given an LGBTQIA+ timely twist. And Lluberes directed this production as well.
The big picture and how to see it
While enjoying a glass of champagne after the performance, audience member Estephanie Ward seemed to speak for others in noting that the production was “was a good kickoff for Pride Month.”
The musical will run through June 19 at The Elgood Theatre at 1025 E. Kearsley St. in Flint. Performances are Friday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
For ticket information visit: flintier.org/the-fantasticks or call 810-237-1530.
Masks required regardless of vaccination status.
The Fantasticks Rep performance is sponsored by John P. MacDonald.
The 2021-2022 Flint Repertory Theatre Signature Series is sponsored by the Whiting Foundation.
For subscriptions, call the ticket center at 810.237.7333.
EVM Arts reporter and layout specialist Patsy Isenberg can be reached at email@example.com.
EVM Managing Editor also contributed to this review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org