Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
3.5 out of 4
To call Quest Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Fantasticks “fantastic” is both an understatement for the quality of the show and a gross misuse of the word for the sake of being cheesy. But here we are. This isn’t just “well it’s free, so expectations are low” good, it’s “hand them money on the way out because how dare they not charge for this” good. This could be an oversell, but I really don’t think it is. Director Kent Joseph took a script that is intentional in its simplicity and elegantly layered in showmanship to highlight every peak and valley of this hilarious and romantic script.
The Fantasticks sets up as a troupe of “players” coming to put on a play for the present audience. This play, as narrated by El Gallo (Robert Quintanilla), follows the love story of Luisa (Tiffany Williams) and Matt (Adam Fane). What Joseph manages to do so brilliantly with this story is keep the simplicity of a small troupe of actors tasked with putting this play on by themselves while combining it with the theatricality of any other musical. The play opens with a stunning shadow ballet behind a scrim while Quintanilla serenades the audience with “Try to Remember” with all the elegance of a highly produced modern musical. However, other places throughout the play call for actors to use props for sound effects (à la Foley artists) as if they were the only ones working on the show. This juxtaposition beautifully manages to pay homage to the original script while adding a gentle flair. This flair may irk some purists, but Joseph weaves in his additional style with care and ease.
That opening moment truly set the tone for how beautiful the play was prepared to be and how masterful Joseph and choreographer Kasey Alfonso are. The play then found its comedic peaks with the lovers’ parents Bellomy (Jordan DeBose) and Hucklebee (Megan Elk) as well as the goofy duo of Henry and Mortimer (Kirk Osgood and Kristen Alesia). The gender blind casting of Elk and Alesia’s roles fleshed out an otherwise male heavy musical. All four of these actors provided the perfect amount of over the top hilarity while not taking away from any of the somber tones the musical also strives for. I’d be remiss not to mention the silent, but unmissable, Lindsey Jouett whose expressive and elegant Mute threatened to steal the show more than once.
Of course, there are a few issues. Williams and Fane, whose voices are undeniably beautiful, suffer from the lack of mics at times. Even knowing the lyrics, there were a few lines that fell away while straining to hear them. There’s also the placement of the piano. With only two instruments (a piano and a harp), the piano finds itself downstage and prominent. It’s not much of an issue until “Round and Round” where everyone is on stage trying to clearly tell the story of the montage that is being sung about. It was easily the biggest trip up in the storytelling of the show. The actors felt cramped and chaotic in their choreography and the actual content of what was going on got lost.
But those complaints are in the far minority. Joseph provides crystal clear storytelling and crafts this show so perfectly that shifting from the ridiculous comedy of a song like “This Plum Is Too Ripe” into the pure power of “I Can See It” is effortless. The fact that Joseph keeps this cast out of the clear melodramatic pitfalls is a credit to the production. Quest’s The Fantasticks is thoroughly enjoyable and should be toward the top of any list of shows to see.
Quest Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Fantasticks runs through March 26, 2017 at The Blue Theatre (1609 W Gregory, Chicago 60640). Admission is free, but reservations are strongly suggested and may be made at www.questensemble.com. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.