In the fall of 1965 I was stationed at a Navy base on Treasure Island, a man made tiny piece of land at one end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge.
I was going to be there for six to seven months and so, I settled in to get to know San Francisco. After a couple weeks of bars and nightclubs, I stopped at the USO to see what they had to offer.
They had two tickets, every night, to a play called “The Fantasticks.”
I had acted in some plays before the Navy and my mom was also a community theater actor. I took one of the tickets and took a famous cable car to a tiny theater in Ghirardelli Square at the famed Fisherman’s Wharf.
I loved the play beyond all common sense. So, I went back, and back and
back again. My best guess is that I saw the play at least three times a week for five and a half months. Some weeks I saw it five or six nights in a row. I couldn’t get enough.
Best guess is I saw it over 100 times. And as life moved on I continued to go. I saw it about a dozen times at the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. I saw it at a couple of colleges and a few community theaters. I guess I’ve seen in about a dozen times, at least, in various Milwaukee theaters.
I saw it again opening night at In Tandem Theatre and I can one thing for sure.
In all of those productions, from New York to San Francisco and dozens of places in between I have never, ever seen an El Gallo like Andrew Varela in an impeccable and delicious production that ends In Tandem’s 20th anniversary season.
Everybody knows the story of Fantasticks.
Luisa(Susan Wiedmeyer) and Matt (Keegan Siebken) are in love. Their fathers, Hucklebee (Matt Daniels) and Bellamy (Chris Flieller) are at war with each other. Shenanigans arrive, accompanied by the aging actor Henry (Robert Spencer) and his supporting castmate Mortimer (Austin Dorman). Add in the onstage stage manager Mute (Mary McClellan) and you have a cast of high-powered actors who find ways to round out these characters I know so well.
Let’s start with Mr. Varela who acts as both the narrator and the suave swindler El Gallo.
He is very handsome and with his black slacks, red shirt and black vest cuts a dashing figure on stage. But it is voice and acting ability that make this El Gallo one to remember.
His baritone fills the theater at times almost climbing into a tenor range, and he can sing in a hush without losing a iota of power and clarity. He also creates a character who is menacing and gentle, serious and funny and disingenuous and frank all at the same time.
The Fantasticks is a show that rises and falls on the shoulders of El Gallo and with this performance the entire production soars like I’ve rarely seen.
He opens the show with the classic “Try to Remember” and it’s the first realization that this is going to be something special. Mr. Varela understands the importance of the lyrics in a song and he sings the words, with full meaning. He doesn’t find the need to phony the song up with pyrotechnics. He knows full well that it’s better when you “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
The rest of this cast is, simply put, amazing.
As the two young people Mr. Siebken and Ms. Wiedmeyer are perfect. He is worldly as only a young man can be and she is a dreamer whose fantasy for her life seems to be just over the hill. He has a pleasant tenor, easily capturing the youthful assuredness to go with her lovely soprano. Ms. Wiedmeyer can really sing and your heart goes out to her with each stretch for the dream of the moment.
As the two fathers, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Flieller, both veterans in Milwaukee, have a chance to exercise their overwhelming chops for both physical and vocal comedy., The interesting thing is that often the two fathers are played as virtual cardboard cutouts, but in this production those men are fully developed into fathers that everyone can relate to.
Mr. Spencer, who played Matt 54 years ago Off-Broadway, makes it a complete circle with the ancient Henry, the gypsy actor who takes his falling-apart act on the road, wherever he can get an audience of at least one person. He gives this character more humor and bits of hijink than I’ve ever seen.
As his slavish aide de camp, Mr. Dorman makes the most of his memorable scene where he displays his perfect art of dying on the stage. The tension of waiting for him to actually perish is palpable.
Ms. McLellan plays Mute with great good humor and spirit. She is leaving Milwaukee soon and we theater fans will be poorer for her family’s move.
Jane Flieller directed this production with an eye toward dedication to the script. Over the years I’ve seen productions of this show with a cast in the nude, a cast blindfolded and a cast doing every song just as spoken word. Ms. Flieller is wonderfully honest with her direction and creates opportunities for the actors to do what they do best.
The music is provided by harpist Mary Keppeler and Josh Robinson, who plays keyboards and served as Music Director for the show. He is building an impressive resume for music direction in this city. He gets the absolute best out of his singers with no gimmicks present.
This is obviously a show that I love but it’s been rare that I’ve enjoyed one as much as I did this one. As the theater season winds down, you don’t want to miss this show.
If you’ve seen it before, go. If not, go.