There are several obvious reasons why Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is wrapping up its 50th anniversary season with The Fantasticks. For one, the long-running musical (17,162 continuous performances in New York City from 1960 to 2002) began its onstage life the same year the Playhouse first presented plays in a Cincinnati Parks shelter house in Mount Adams.
Perhaps even more meaningfully, the original production of The Fantasticks was directed by Word Baker, who later served as the Playhouse’s artistic director from 1970 to 1972. The show was a mainstay in the Playhouse’s early years, with five productions between 1963 and 1974.
But I’d argue that, aside from these historical connections, The Fantasticks is a perfect tribute to art of theater and a delightful musical that shows why the Playhouse means so much to Cincinnati audiences. The show’s staying power is amply displayed by the current charming production, staged by Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern.
The Fantasticks is a simply told fairytale about a boy and a girl who fall in love, swept away by romance and a bit of paternal manipulation. Following the sweet embrace of the first act, the second act brings them back to earth, roughs them up a bit and then shows them that love is more than romantic posing, flowery speeches and noble pronouncements.
At the Playhouse, The Fantasticks is told with such easy charm and disarming humor that it remains affecting after 50 years.
Stern’s staging uses a Paul Shortt set in a tawdry theater, tattered curtains and gilt a little the worse for wear. The lovers (Jon-Michael Reese and Margaret-Ellen Jeffreys) are full of breathless wonder, while their fathers (Jerome Lucas Harmann and Bill Kux) wholly embrace their characters’ vaudevillian roots, milking humor with physical and vocal dexterity.
Cincinnati native Ron Bohmer fully captures the boyishly superficial charm of the outlaw and narrator El Gallo, allowing a more chastened, worldly man to slip out occasionally — sometimes at his own expense. Bohmer’s singing of classic numbers, especially “Try to Remember,” is just right.
In particular, he carries out Stern’s staging that moves him up and down the aisles of the Shelterhouse rather than keeping him on the small stage. This draws the audience into the action without literally bringing them onstage; in fact, the entire theater becomes a playing area. Bohmer speaks directly to the audience and even acts as if he might invite them to be part of the action. (He doesn’t.)
Adding to the production’s tribute to theatricality is Stern’s clever decision to use two veterans familiar to Playhouse audiences to play Henry and Mortimer, the show’s way-over-the-hill recruits who help carry out a comic abduction in Act I and return after intermission to drag the boy off to the hardships of the world.
Joneal Joplin is Henry, the enfeebled actor who makes a hash of Shakespearean lines. Joplin has played King Lear and Big Daddy for the Playhouse and spent eight seasons as Ebenezer Scrooge. Watching him work with one of Cincinnati’s best professionals, CEA Hall of Famer Dale Hodges, as Mortimer — whose specialty is death scenes — is a theatrical gift, a moment to be treasured by Playhouse patrons for years to come. Individually they’re funny (especially Hodges wrestling with an invisible bow and arrow), but together they offer a hilarious demonstration of physical humor.
Watching productions of The Fantasticks in the mid-1960s when I was beginning to develop my own appreciation of theater shaped my love of the joy of live theater. I’m grateful to Ed Stern and the Cincinnati Playhouse for reminding me again.
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