The story begins with Matt and Luisa (played by Jordan Briggs and Kylee Robinson, respectively), two young lovers who are separated by a horrible wall built by their fathers in an attempt to keep them apart. Matt and Luisa meet in secret and express their undying love for one another while their fathers grumble about what useless children they are. But the audience quickly learns that the grumpy dads (Rick Mead and Brett Hansen) built the wall to trick the kids into thinking their love was forbidden. (Nothing is more tantalizing than forbidden love.) The plot to entangle the two lovers thickens with an abduction, a handsome mysterious stranger, a mute, and a pair of traveling players. All this story is set to the backdrop of a live band with Jessica Cordner on the harp, Andrea K. Fife at the piano, and Stacy Lee Snider at the bass.
The story is simple, but its drama and excitement are sweeping and grand. It was clear that the cast and crew were passionate about the story and the production. The minimal set was very clever, and my favorite was how they did the rain in the moonlight. Most of the cast remains on stage for the duration of the show, watching the others when it’s not their turn to perform. Their constant presence makes it feel like they’re ready to spring back into action whenever the story calls for them, which adds a tense energy to the show. Halfway through act two in the song Round and Round, El Gallo (played by Monte Garcia) and Luisa sing together in the energetic peak of the story. The intensity is exhausting but the cast never falters. It’s clear that this is an important show to everyone on stage.
This is a heavily symbolic script by Tom Jones (based on a play by Edmond Rostand) that carries most of its meaning in the music and its plot in the spoken word. Live music is much more visceral than pre-recorded, and the musicians cast for this show were talented and expressive as they played Harvey Schmidt‘s score. However, the sound system at the Empress wasn’t up to the challenge. There was one moment in the show when I was sure I was hearing a cast member’s voice through the speakers. Moreover, each time an actor was facing away from me I couldn’t hear them well. For most of the show it didn’t sound like the microphones were working at all, and during the music the actors were frequently drowned out by the instruments. Again, the show doesn’t rely on the music to advance the plot, so this was not a fatal flaw that prevents the audience from understanding the story. This would have been a non-issue on a proscenium stage with an orchestra pit, but the Empress has a thrust stage with most of the audience facing each other from two sides of the room. In order to address one half of the audience the actors must turn their backs on the other half, and with the poor mics it makes it difficult to hear a fair portion of the dialogue and probably half of the music.
This show was written in the 1960s, and while its message and symbolism are still applicable, it carries some artifacts that are due for an update. For example, the song “It Depends on What You Pay” some raiding “Indians” are referenced several times, referring to Native Americans who are coming to abduct a helpless white woman. Additionally, the character Mortimer is also called “The Man Who Dies” and is a white man in a feathered headdress. I will admit, Logan Gifford‘s portrayal of the character was very funny and charming. But using native cultures as comedic devices, while it was probably super hilarious 60 years ago, is just insulting now.
Many in the cast were excellent singers when you could hear them, especially Garcia and Robinson. There is some very shrill screaming at several points in the show, so brace yourself for that. If you get a seat close to the stage but away from the band, the Empress Theatre’s production would be a good introduction to The Fantasticks.