By Betsy Wolfe
With simple sets, a small ensemble cast and timeless humor, golden theatre favorite, The Fantasticks, this show is perfectly-suited for Quest Theatre Ensemble and its intimate space at The Blue Theater.
Quest is currently presenting this 1960 musical (music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones) known for its record-breaking off-Broadway 42-year run, the world’s longest-running musical. The story surrounds Matt and Luisa, two young neighbors, who fall in love as a result of scheming parents. A synopsis may be read here.
As per usual for Quest productions, the action fills a small front performance space that bleeds into the audience aisles while the edge of the stage is literally inches from the front row seats. This positioning is used well to the actors’ and production’s advantage, since much of the humor feels improvised and personal. The sense of the audience being in on the joke is far stronger than in other productions of The Fantasticks.
Opening night yielded another packed house that highlighted the professionalism that audiences have come to expect from Quest and the words “du jour” for this production are Chemistry and Harmony. That’s true for the entire ensemble, with kudos going to brilliant casting and artistic vision by Director Kent Joseph. Every single character on stage is entirely likeable, and Joseph has lent a disciplined but loving hand bringing the best out of a crazy and talented cast.
Set Designs by Joseph Pilka work well for the space. A visual highlight in the show involves set design with lighting by Eric Vigo: Early in Act 1, shadowed dancing and scene props depict beautiful silhouettes against a scrim that set the scene for sentimentality and a good-hearted story.
While music accompaniment is typically sparse for this show, often using just two keyboards to cover the entire score, Quest’s production, to the audience’s delight, features the signature harp, beautifully played by Keryn Wouden, and piano played by Music Director Sara Cate Langham. Much like her previous keyboard role in fall 2016 for The People’s History of the United States, Langham relates as an addition to the ensemble, greatly adding to the overall humor, especially in Act 1.
Langham is also to be congratulated for her excellent direction for vocals. This show isn’t generally known for its ensemble numbers; however, this particular production shows off great musical chemistry while the individual characterization and vocals are exceptional.
The familiar opening song, “Try to Remember,” sung by Robert Quintanilla as El Gallo is superb. His smoldering presence, graceful manor and smooth singing and speaking voice captivates throughout the production. The two young lovers: Luisa, played by Tiffany Williams, and Matt, played by Adam Fane, exude unexpected and delightful cohesion in youthful energy, vocal gravitas and even a moment of sensuality.
The ensemble includes two support characters usually played by two older men, often depicted as geriatric vaudevillians. This production cast youthful and zany Kirk Osgood as Henry with the role of Mortimer gender-bended by equally youthful Kristen Alesia. Osgood’s brilliant “circus white-face” comedy approach was perfectly matched and balanced by Alesia’s luminous “circus tramp.” The twist in their presentation is largely responsible for much of the terrific improv of the night.
Typically, another duo in The Fantasticks is also presented as two older men: the two fathers of the young lovers. In Quest’s version, Luisa’s father, Bellomy, played by the talented Jordan DeBose, is best friends with Matt’s mother, played by Megan Elk. This particular gender twist really works for Quest, giving some tired numbers an appreciated boost.
With a mother present, new innuendos create charm with nuances not possible using the original casting. The flirtations between El Gallo and Mother Huckabee manage to be hilarious and at the same time, a little steamy. Elk has an amazing sense of comedic timing reminiscent of the glorious Lucille Ball, without chewing the scenery. On top of that, both Elk and DeBose offer up gorgeous, tender duets and wonderful boisterous ensemble singing. The cherry on top is the subtle elegant humor and dance bestowed like a gift upon all by Lindsey Jouett as The Mute. She doesn’t sing or speak for the entire show, however she is an enduring and necessary component of every scene.
There are only two somewhat negative aspects of this production. First is the terrible, ratty Luisa wig that Williams endured cheerfully the entire time. On opening night, one would expect a fresh hairstyle on a lead actress which wouldn’t distract from all the other wonderful components of the show. The other issue, present in every show at Quest, is that audience seating is too tightly packed, putting strangers uncomfortably close in a room much too warm.
Barring these picky, less significant observations, Quest’s delightful production is arguably one of the kindest and most enjoyable versions of The Fantasticks an audience can hope to experience. On top of that, all tickets are free, though reservations are recommended.
Quest Theatre Ensemble presents “The Fantasticks” through March 26 at The Blue Theatre, 1809 W. Gregory Ave., Chicago. More information and reservations are available here.