Of all the cliché shows in all the world, Idaho Shakespeare Festival had to do “The Fantasticks.” It’s the longest running Off-Broadway show in history, and one of the most produced shows in the country. The thing is, it’s only perceived as cliché. Once you see it on stage—especially director Victoria Bussert’s endearing and sweetly sincere vision of it that opened Saturday—you realize it’s not clichéd at all, no more than is its inspiration “Romeo and Juliet.”
It’s simply lovely.
The show depicts the experience of falling in and out of love that rings entirely true. We’ve all been there. We’ve done that (and that other thing, too) and we can—and do—relate.
The secret recipe lies in Tom Jones’ and Harvey Schmidt’s book and music that also makes the show a love letter to theater. It’s filled with beautifully rendered songs and stuffed with theatrical archetypes and devices that aid in the storytelling. The more it relies on overtly theatrical chestnuts, the more genuine—and funnier—it gets.
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From the moment that we meet Luisa (Clare Howes Eisnetrout) and Matt (Pedar Benson Bate) we are just as smitten with them as they are with each other. They are the ultimate young lovers, ingénue and romantic lead, filled with naive-expectations. These two wonderful performers dig deeply into their emotions and sustain believability through the ups and down of their characters’ on-and-off and-on-again relationship. And thankfully their voices more than measure up. Eisentrout’s clear bell-like soprano and Bate’s powerful tenor carry you along with them.
As the two fathers who want their kids to marry, Justin Ness (Bellomy) and Lynn Robert Berg III (Hucklebee) are delightful song-and-dance men, and comedians. They are good with a soft shoe, a jaunty tune and a good one-liner. The dad duo builds a wall between their lands, played by The Mute (Meredith Lark) who also handles, rain, snow, sun and moon duties with luminous grace.
Their quest is orchestrated by the worldly-wise El Gallo (Padgett) and his ragtag duo of Mechanicals, Henry (M.A. Taylor) and Mortimer (James Penca) offer to heighten the romance by feigning an abduction of Luisa so Matt can rescue her. That of course can never work because it’s not true. It’s not until the couple experience real pain and heartbreak—Matt by losing his way in the world, and Luisa by losing her heart and most cherished position to El Gallo—that their love can be real.
Padgett brings a delightful roguishness to El Gallo. Handsome and confident and with a rich baritone, he nails the show’s most touching ballad “Try To Remember” and charms the audience along with Luisa. He and Bate make a great pair singing “I Can See It,” Bate’s Matt full of hope and expectation for his adventure into the world, El Gallo with wry irony.
Taylor, who is a company stalwart, and Penca, who makes his debut in the role, are hysterical as Henry and Mortimer. Taylor has the ability to turn on a dime from forgetful buffoon to dramatic orator, and Penca pulls out all the physical stops as the actor who’s been literally dying on stage for 40 years.
Musical director Matthew Webb and musician Mick Wilders added to the transparency of the production by playing beautifully on stage.
Wrap it up with Gage William’s spare deconstructed set, Jeff Herrmann’s deeply layered lighting, David Gotwald’s sound design (great thunder claps) and Gregory Daniels’ deft choreography and you’ve got an engaging night of theater with a life lesson: If you’re going to love, it’s not going to be easy because suffering and heartbreak are part of the deal. But it will be worth it.