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Photos by Kunio Ouellette
Review by Lisa Purchase Kelly 

For someone who's spent 15 years working in theater, I am woefully under-educated in "the classics" of musical theater. Consequently, when I went to Thursday night's opening performance of The Fantasticks at the Bay City Players, I was pretty much ready for anything. I came to it with a complete lack of anticipation … quite a feat considering it ran for 17,162 performances off Broadway—yes, that's seventeen THOUSAND shows—and is currently in its Fiftieth year of production. Hard to spend as much time as I have in a theater and still know nothing about a standard like that, but there I was, completely ignorant. But by the time I walked away at the end, I understood the play's perennial appeal and walked to my car humming tunes from the show.

At first the minimal set and the arrival of a handful of characters (including two mimes, at which I really had to wonder) did little to snag my interest. But a minute or three into the play, the Narrator (played by David King) started into "Try to Remember," and I settled into his solid baritone as he spooned the familiar melody over the audience, like ladling out chicken soup for the theater-goer's soul.

The simplistic characters of a girl (Luisa, played by Shelby Avery, a senior at Saginaw's Valley Lutheran High School), a boy (Matt, played by Alejandro "Hondo" Cervantes, a junior at Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy), and their fathers (Bellomy, played by Cameron Pichan, and Hucklebee, played by Kunio Ouellette) start out as deliberate stereotypes, playful caricatures rather than complex characters. They begin their pretty little melodrama, a romance complete with all the trappings, right down to the cardboard moon. The fathers set themselves up as faux foes, thinking they are very clever using reverse psychology to push their offspring together. And the teens moon and spoon over the fence, all wrapped up in the romance of their "forbidden" affair. The corny jokes and corny teenage love are played so well, they are utterly charming. Avery and Cervantes are especially capable in these roles, playing their innocent teenagers with great humor, and singing their sweet serenades beautifully. As the mother of a teenage daughter, I was especially amused by this teenage girl's flighty and flowery monologue, princess fantasies, and overblown visions of grandeur— "Oh please don't let me be … NORMAL!"

To further their plot, the fathers arranged an abduction, setting the Boy up as the hero to rescue the Girl and cement their romance. The cape-clad "El Gallo" (the Narrator) sells them on a full-blown production of the Rape of the Sabine Women, "a gothic pastoral with Indians, a rape ballet, a military siege," and produces a prop box filled with an ancient blowhard spouting inaccurate Shakespeare (Henry, played by Michael Wisniewski) and a quiet Indian named Mortimer who specializes in self-inflicted death scenes (played by Amanda Glashauser). The drama of the abduction and rescue are played out, the teens are thoroughly enamored of themselves, the fathers are united in their blessing, and everything seems hunky-dory.

The simple premise of Act I ("To manipulate children, you merely say NO.") quickly dissolves into complication and chaos in Act II. By sunlight things seem to look somewhat less flattering ("No matter what the poets say, the night is only half the day"), and as secret romance turns to realistic relationship, they are forced to see each other as just regular people, not the heroes and princesses they believed themselves to be mere minutes ago. The nit-picking begins, the magic fades, the bill for the abduction arrives. Unable to tolerate their disillusionment (and guided again by the wily Narrator) the teens turn their back on one another and seek satisfaction elsewhere. But ultimately they miss each other, and they discover that genuine caring trumps cardboard romance.

Every performance was solid and a few (Avery, King, and Cervantes) were really outstanding. Likewise with the singing voices, resulting in great solos and group numbers all the way through the show. The script was charming, accessible, and family-friendly (I really enjoyed the little girl sitting in front of me silently mouthing the words to all the songs … I found out at intermission that she was Cameron Pichan's child and had gleefully learned the role along with her father while hanging out at rehearsals). With its simple set, small cast (mimes Amy Britt and Lisa Rittmaier fill in as stage-hands and audience to the little dramas), understated instrumentation (Joan Kinnette and Doug Webster on keyboards), sweet story and catchy tunes, I can see why this show has had such enduring appeal.

The Bay City Players put on a fantastic production of The Fantasticks. It runs now through November 21, with showtimes at 8:00 pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3:00 pm on Sunday. Ticket prices are $20 (Students and Seniors $17) For more information or to order tickets, call the Box Office at (989) 893-5555 or check out the Bay City Players' website at http://

© Lisa Purchase Kelly, 2010