Magic and Mood in Rhinebeck

“Without a hurt, the heart will hollow.”

This painful truth is nearly hidden in the lilting, nostalgic melody of The Fantasticks’ iconic opening song, “Try to Remember.” It is fitting, really, that it should be so, since much of the staying power of this record-setting show is to be found in how effectively its whimsy veils the depth of its commentary on how we love and lose our way.

One of Broadway’s most beautiful songs opens the show with a melodic simplicity to which the score never returns. Indeed, Tom Jones’ and Harvey Schmidt’s score presents considerable challenges for the musicians and the vocalists. In this Rhinebeck Theater Society production, the score is ably carried by musical director and pianist Michael Berkeley and harpist Teresa Mango, to great effect. The production’s standout vocalist is Rhinebeck newcomer Katie Nicole Weiser in the role of Luisa, and Austin Lightning Carrothers sets the tone for the romantic fable with a thoroughly inviting rendition of “Try to Remember.”

Austin Carrothers as El Gallo

As Director Tina Reilly points out in her notes, the playwrights intended to both celebrate and mock romanticism, in Jones’ words, “to touch people, and then to make them laugh at the very thing that touched them.” Like any enduring fairy tale, the lessons to be learned are obvious to us all; yet we fall for it again and again. The romantic ideal is at once our fundamental virtue and flaw.   

The story is of the young Luisa and her paramour, Matt (Chris Backofen); enamored of each other due, in equal measure, to their youthful notions of romance and their fathers’ pretended objections to their pairing. Their scheming fathers enlist the aid of the enigmatic El Gallo, who doubles as a narrator, to stage a pretended abduction of the fair Luisa, from which Matt will appear to “save” her. In Act Two, we are reminded that “what at night may seems oh so scenic, may be cynic by and by,” and the two young lovers learn that more than romance is required for true love to prevail. The show will not be spoiled by revealing here that love triumphs in the end.      

Amber McCarthy as The Mute, Katie Nicole Weiser as Luisa, and Chris Backofen as Matt.

Carrothers is an elegant stage presence and is just as dastardly and dashing as the part of El Gallo requires. His partners in the staged rescue of Luisa are the Shakespearean actor Henry (Lou Trapani), whose thespian gifts are comically fading, and his trusted sidekick Mortimer (Thomas G. Byrne). Trapani’s Henry is entirely endearing and effective, and Byrne gives a slapstick performance as his aide reminiscent of Vaudeville and Hollywood’s earliest comic characterizations. Amber McCarthy, who gives the show a natural but professional energy as the show’s choreographer, also plays The Mute, who adds to the magic of the show with, well…the occasional magic trick, among other flights of fancy. Andy Crispell and Michael Britt are a delight every time they are featured in the roles of the fathers.

Weiser and Backofen are utterly charming as the protagonists. Each bring an exuberance to their portrayals which make them entirely believable as the youth who open the show, deep in puppy love. Weiser gives us a precocious Luisa who is not entirely without an instinct for self-determination. Backofen’s Matt is equal parts naïve and noble; we buy him as the varsity letterman when the show opens, while it is no stretch to think he might be a perfectly capable hero if called upon in something other than a rouse.

Andy Crispell and Michael Brit

Reilly’s choice to present the instruments and the vocals unamplified, against the minimalist set reflective of that which exemplified the more than 17,000 performances of the show in its original off-Broadway run, are wise and creditable choices. It adds to the organic intimacy of the show, which is undoubtedly part of its enduring appeal. Likewise, the show is costumed by Donna Letteri in an easy and playful style that calls to mind playing “dress-up” out of a trunk full of vintage clothes found in the fantastical attics of idyllic youth.  The Fantasticks runs through October 6 at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck. Tickets are available online (centerforperformingarts.org), by phone at the box office (845.876.3080), or at the door (661 Route 308 Rhinebeck, NY)

The cast of The Fantasticks

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