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Sweet Hearts

Charismatic cast shine in charming production of 'The Fantasticks'

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Plant a radish, get a radish--never any doubt," sing a pair of exasperated fathers as they compare their children, who haven't grown up how they expected, to the vegetables in their gardens, which consistently have. "That's why I like vegetables," they conclude, because with Brussels sprouts and kidney beans, "You know what you're about."

The same could be said for The Fantasticks, a show with very specific, built-in ideas about how it is to be performed: the set is always bare or nearly so; the actors sit upstage with their backs to the audience when not on; and what passes for special effects--rain, snow, a disappearing and reappearing wall, the waxing and waning of a paper moon--are produced by the actions of the mute, a mysterious, never-smiling, one-woman scenery department. With The Fantasticks, no matter how many productions one might have seen by companies large, small, professional, amateur or otherwise, one pretty much always knows what to expect, which, since there is a kind of comfort in familiar things, is not a bad situation at all.

In the recently opened production of The Fantasticks, a collaboration by Actors Theatre and Santa Rosa Players--the second full theatrical staging since the two companies joined forces last year--director John Rathjen confidently guides his charismatic cast through all those time-honored stage actions, and simultaneously manages to make the story seem invigorating and fresh. The cast, a mix of seasoned performers familiar to fans of local theater and a couple of new faces, deserve much of the credit as well, perfectly capturing the innocent, sentimental tone of The Fantasticks, a show in which tone is everything.

Since the moment it appeared in Greenwich Village in 1960, audiences have embraced this slight but charming romantic fable about love gone wrong then right again, boosted by sweet, infectious songs, many of which, like the show-opening "Try to Remember," have since worked themselves into America's musical subconscious.

The story, clearly inspired by the stuff of ages past, concerns a pair of young lovers, a boy (Michael Detoffoli) and a girl (Beverley Viljoen), who've fallen in love despite--or perhaps because of--the large, stone wall their fake-feuding fathers have secretly built to separate them. This, it turns out, was the fathers' plan, recognizing children's tendency to set their sights on doing whatever they are told not to do. Once the kids are hopelessly in love, the fathers hire a band of over-the-top actors (Bill Waxman, Douglas Cupples and Jeff Coté, who also serves as the show's singing narrator) to stage a mock kidnapping of the girl (archaically referred to as a "rape," with lively narrative exposition discussing that word's etymological roots in the Latin verb meaning "to seize"). From this the boy is expected to save his true love, thus ending the father's make-believe feud.

It works, of course, but when the first act ends with a song blissfully titled "Happy Ending," with half the show still to come, it's a hint that the young lovers' love affair will be hitting some bumpy spots on the road to a harder-won, more mature conclusion.

Michael Detoffoli, whom SRP regulars have watched grow up onstage, with increasingly sizable roles in several productions, here gets his largest SRP role to date, and he nails it, exuding the right balance of busting-out-all-over, youthful male romanticism, and singing his numerous songs in a fine, confident voice. Viljoen, as the girl, is equally delightful, strong-voiced, wistful and heart-breakingly sweet, in her first performance with SRP and AT.

Tom Viers, mischievously glowering as the boy's father, and Timothy Jaxon as the girl's father (with a wide-open, expressive face he knows how to use to comic effect), make a hilarious comic team, alternately beaming and bumbling as they lovingly mismanage their children's lives. Through it all, a striking, straight-postured, top-hatted Allison Marcom, as the mute, pulls off the astonishingly feat of keeping a straight face, unsmiling and watchful, through all the inspired buffoonery and sweet, familiar silliness busting out all around her.


'The Fantasticks' plays Friday-Sunday through Nov. 28. Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. Saturday, Nov. 13, special $10 matinee at 2pm; no evening show. Merlo Theater, LBC, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $15-$22. 707.523.4185.

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From the November 10-16, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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