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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Fantasticks at The Five Star Theatre is very, very good

How can the world’s longest running musical be unfamiliar to so many living right now? I can barely explain why I’d never seen The Fantasticks before. My theatrical experiences have leaned toward big production numbers and flashy sets. The simplicity of The Fantasticks is sweet and endearing.

The Fantasticks, now playing at the Five Star Theatre in Hot Springs is in fact the longest running musical in the world. Part of the reason for the success of its longevity is it can be performed anywhere with a bare wood floor, a cardboard moon, a talented cast, a little magic and imagination. The Five Star Theatre has all of those ingredients to make a successful run of The Fantasticks every Friday and Saturday night from now through October 26. In addition to a memorable show patrons enjoy a wonderful dinner provided by The Porterhouse and Belle Arti.

The bare wood floor is an elevated stage set for every one to see from anywhere in the house. The cardboard moon makes its appearance several times throughout the show. The talented cast surprised me with its consistency, all standout performances, no weak link. The magic was definitely there and I brought my imagination with me as did all the other audience members.

If you don’t know it already, the number one rule when seeing musical theater, or opera for that matter, is to leave your sense of reality at the front door. We don’t go through life singing at the drop of the hat, especially with a deep sense of introspection, so let go and have fun while watching.

The Fantasticks is a 1960 musical with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones. The show's original off-Broadway production ran 42 years, yes, 42 years with 17,162 performances. There are about 250 new productions of the musical around the world every year in the United States and 67 other countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. This production is produced by Stacey Castlebury and directed by Elaine Bankston.

The simple story of The Fantasticks involves two fathers wanting to combine their adjoining lands by arranging for their children to marry without knowing it is an arranged marriage. They use the reverse psychology of no by constructing an imaginary wall separating the two properties and an imaginary feud to keep the children apart. Add in an abduction and a rescue for comic relief. The forbidden is so tempting the plan works until the daughter and son discover the truth. Eventually, true love finds a way and the couple comes back together to unite the families for good.

The Fantasticks has one song that is recognizable to most everyone even if the overall musical is not, Try to Remember, no I’m not quizzing you, Try to Remember is the title of the song. The show starts with this number in this case sung by the incredibly talented Ken Goodman. Many of you have seen Goodman perform at his Vienna Theatre and at the Woodlands. He has a booming baritone that has nuance when loud and soft. Goodman appears as the narrator, bandit El Gallo. El Gallo means cocky person. Jerry Orbach originated the role in 1960. The character of El Gallo is the glue that holds the production together and Goodman has the notes and charisma to easily accomplish this task. After appearing in The Fantasticks Goodman will be transformed into Daddy Warbucks for the Village Players production of Annie this November and will perform in his Christmas show at the Five Star Theatre in December.

The mute dancer weaves her way through the show handing out a few simple props while advancing the action. Kodie Brown and Elizabeth Soleder share this role. It is thankless and invisible. When at its best the performance is not noticed it just keeps the flow going and in this production the goal is accomplished admirably.

The two fathers step up and hatch their plans with the delightfully funny Never Say No. Both men are strong tenors and good character actors. Mark Maddux plays Bellamy, Louisa’s father. He brings humor and chemistry to the role. The chemistry is with fellow father actor Thomas Cooper as Matt’s father, Huckabee. Cooper doubles his roles as Henry, one of the actor/bandits. Both men hold their own with these supporting characters.

Natalie Williams appears as the daughter, Luisa. The OBU sophomore has accumulated a lot of musical theater credits at this point and I am sure local audiences will see a lot more of her before she graduates and heads into her professional career as a composer/performer. Williams voice is that of a lyric soprano, high and electric. The character of Luisa calls for naivete and growth into maturity. Williams does both quite well.

Timothy Cooper is the affable Matt. Cooper’s interpretation of Matt very much reminds me of another 60's era character Chuck Baxter from Promises Promises. Another role originated by Jerry Orbach. He is sweet, insecure and lovable. He has a good singing voice and holds his own in the standout cast. He is working with his real life father as his stage father and his real life uncle as the choreographer of the show, Edmond Cooper.

The unsung hero of this production was the keyboard player hidden away in an elevated section of the theater, Janice Maddux. Maddux did a phenomenal job with a tough score. She deserves many kudos.

My recommendation is to run not walk to your computer and get your tickets for a Friday or Saturday night from now through October 26 at You can also call (501) 318-1600 for reservations. The Five Star Theatre is at 701 Central Avenue in historic downtown Hot Springs.

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