Orange County Register

Small-scale revival highlights timeless nature of 'Fantasticks' in Costa Mesa

By Eric Marchese

PUBLISHED: April 11, 2017 at 5:12 pm | UPDATED: April 11, 2017 at 5:15 pm

Much has been written about "The Fantasticks," whose 42-year run made it the world's longest-running musical.

A visit to Costa Mesa Playhouse reminds us of the many reasons the show struck a chord with audiences and receives constant revivals: By musicalizing Edmond Rostand's "The Romancers," Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (book and lyrics) tapped the emotions born of coming of age, falling in love and experiencing both the bitter and the sweet doled out by life.

Wholesome and beguiling, "The Fantasticks" is fanciful and lightly humorous while also dark and bitter. Its timeless and simple (but not simple-minded) story, characters, songs and themes also account for the show's ongoing durability and success.

Director Aurora J. Culver's fine staging actualizes these strengths, and she and her company ably tout the play's inherent theatricality, from its florid, poetic language to a storytelling style both direct and sweeping – and even though the good feelings of the young couple and their dads temporarily sours, CMP's production avoids turning dark, unpleasant and sordid.

Partly from his nearly all-black attire, partly from his mannerisms, Sterling Liska's El Gallo suggests a '50s urban slickster – perhaps a con man or zoot-suiter: He's a dashing rogue, yes, but in a subdued way. Not all darkly suave and sinister, Liska also injects the right levels of self-deprecating humor. His resonant speaking voice is deeply theatrical – and, so, ideal for the role.

Jonathan Haidl as a tall, hefty, science-nerd type Matt and Melissa Marino's girlish, and a tad loony, Luisa, are no matinee idols – quite ordinary looking, in fact, but more accessible to us, and so more effective. Each is suitably awkward in character, which also makes the twosome's romance more credible.

Schmidt's generally undemanding score suits the show to performers of average vocal ability – but Culver's cast is better than average vocally, delivering the simple, straightforward appeal of the show's ageless songs.

Vocally, Marino, Haidl and Liska have their moments to shine, and that affixes a pleasing glow to this staging. Liska's gorgeous lyric baritone elevates CMP's production several notches, especially in his rendition of the durable "Try to Remember" and his phrasing of its rich, deeply meaningful lyrics, while Marino is especially strong in Act Two.

Though dads Hucklebee and Bellomy are mostly amiable neighbors, friends and in-laws, Rich Wordes and Gary Greene create the pleasing contrasts that generate tension: Wordes resembles an aging Gene Kelly whose persona is marked by chagrin; Greene is warmer overall, more offbeat, and less crusty.

Michael Dale Brown's doddering yet bombastic Henry is ever the grand master thespian steeped in Shakespeare and the classics, spewing flowery speech. As his theater compatriot Mortimer, Joshua David Vega provides nicely contrasting youth, energy and unflagging good cheer, along with a Cockney accent. Through enjoyable mime and magic tricks, Kaitlyn Smith ably expands the supporting role of The Mute, El Gallo's assistant.

The focus of Culver's set is a pageant wagon whose front panel bears the play's famous logo (its title and crescent moon emblem). Music director Stephen Hulsey's on-stage pianistics provide the show's musical foundation, but it's Jillian Risigari-Gai's entrancing harp playing that enhances and fortifies the score's ethereal nature.

'The Fantasticks'

When: Through April 30. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

Tickets: $20 ($18 seniors/students)

Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Suitability: All ages

Information: 949-650-5269;