Encore Michigan

Flint Rep’s ‘The Fantasticks’ breathes new life into the landmark play

Review June 14, 2022 David Kiley

FLINT, MI–When Michael Lluberes, Artistic Director at The Flint Repertory Theatre, last December decided to act on his vision of a re-imagined The Fantasticks, with a couple of gay teenage lads instead of the boy and girl that is written into the 60+ year old story, he could have hardly imagined the outcome.

He wrote to the surviving creator of the show, 94-year-old Tom Jones, to ask whether he could simply change pronouns in the script and music. In the first instance, Jones balked. But after thinking more, he not only agreed but collaborated on more changes with Lluberes, saying changing pronouns wouldn’t be enough to frame the new idea.

It is a re-imagining that has rejuvenated a play that some directors, audiences and critics had put in the category of…”What? Again?” For most of the 62 years of its existence since opening in New York, the creators have made it available to almost anyone to put on, making the show one of the most accessible and frequently done shows from college drama programs to community theatre.

“Transforming the boy and the girl into two boys (Matt and Lewis, played by Ben Cherry and Neil McCaffrey) is an idea I’ve had for a long time,” says Lluberes. “Rethinking the show through the lens of two young gay men reveals so much about first love, identity and self-discovery.”

It was time for a meaningful update as critics have occasionally referred to the play as “The Anachronistics,” and “The Optimistics.” And this show is a triumph in pumping new life and oxygen into this timeless play.

Lluberes has stuck to a minimal set in part to honor the concept of the original production. Instead of a multi-piece band, the sole accompaniment is by Music Director Brian E. Buckner on piano. The set design, by Shane Cinal, is all white, with a white bathtub on wheels and a white bench across the back of the stage. A white backdrop has a “window” with a solid panel about fifteen feet higher than the stage that slides up and down like a dumbwaiter door, allowing characters to ascend a back-stage ladder and appear in another place outside of the yards when the script calls for it. The Mute (played radiantly by Janet Haley) is also dressed in white, right down to her white painted fingernails.

There is a wonderful addition of multi-colored confetti that accumulates over the course of the play, shaking from a machine mounted above the stage, and shaking from above as rain, sun, happiness and serving as the water in the tub. Everyone gets baptized by the colors of the rainbow.

The story is pretty simple, but the telling of it is full of allegory and complexity. It’s about two teenagers who fall in love. Rather than coming between the kids, their mothers (fathers in the original book), played by Diane Hill and Catherine Shaffner, feign standing in their way with a pretend feud because they know if they say “No” to the young love, it will actually drive the kids closer together. That ploy is played out in the song “Never Say No.”

Lewis comes to fantasize about the experiences he wants to have in his life (“Much More”). Matt then delivers a speech about his love for Lewis, calling over the wall between their yards in a mock literary way (“Metaphor”). Matt and Lewis climb to the top of the wall and speak secretly of Lewis’s romantic vision of Matt saving him from kidnapping. There is a mysterious professional bandit –El Gallo, who is also the story’s narrator–contracted by the Mothers to kidnap Lewis so that Matt can rescue him and appear heroic. Yes, it’s a stretch of a story and always was. In fact, in the original story, Jones and co-creator Harvey Schmidt wrote the “abduction” as a rape, but abduction has been the preferred language for decades for obvious reasons.

Matt is, indeed, eager to leave the provincial town. He and El Gallo discuss his vision of adventure (“I Can See It”). Gallo then employs Henry (the old actor) played by Jason Briggs as a drag queen, and his partner, Mortimer (the actor who always dies), played by Richard Payton, to take the lad away with them to see the world. A month passes, and the Mothers have turned their faux feud designed to cement the young lovers, into a real feud and rebuilt the wall separating the yards. If it all feels vaguely Shakespearean, it is meant to feel that way.

The infamous wall between the two families yards have been depicted over the decades with ladders, fences, boxes, fake hedges, and even in human form in the character of the Mute with arms outstretched. Here, the fence is imagined, with actors miming their actions around an invisible fence and garden.

For all the criticisms of The Fantasticks across the decade, it’s strength is in the universal themes that have made it one of the most produced plays in the world. This production, though, is special beyond the casting of two gay lovers. Lluberes’ creative vision has shaken the accumulated dust off the pages and infused it with a fresh energy. And The Fantasticks is just the latest example of his special brand of artistic presentation that began with his arrival in 2017, and has touched such established and heretofore predictable shows ranging from Into The Woods and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

This production of The Fantasticks cements The Flint Rep as one of the leading lights of regional theatre in the country. More than that, this newly imagined production is already creating new interest in producing this version of the play after just a couple of weeks of production. It would surprise no one if this version became the preferred version to do from here on out.

While the production concept is getting most of the attention, it should not be missed that Lluberes has cast the show perfectly, drawing on some of the best local actors in Michigan, blended with first rate out-of-towners like Mr. Cherry, Mr. McCaffrey, Mr. Porter and Ms. Shaffner. Cherry and Porter’s vocals are especially good and on the mark. Mr. McCaffrey plays Lewis with a precocious, adorable persona that fortunately stops short of a caricature of a gay teen. He and Mr. Porter have chemistry that makes their love entirely believable and authentic. Ms. Hill and Ms. Shaffner are nicely contrasted, so that their alliance feels heartfelt, but it also allows their temporary feud to feel real. Mr. Briggs is utterly delicious as the drag queen, and the only thing that stops him from stealing every scene he is in is the strength of Mr. Payton’s balanced comedic presence, right down to his shiny gold sneakers.

This Fantasticks production is refreshing and rejuvenating. And we have Michael Lluberes imagination and Tom Jones’ open mindedness and vision to thank; to change a play he already made millions from and to pick up his pen again to probably give the play decades of new life…that is something to celebrate.