The king of Off Broadway comes to Madison Street

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By Doug Deuchler

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  As I so often say, we are extremely fortunate in this community to have high-quality college productions performed in our midst. If you've never seen The Fantasticks before, or you've not experienced it in a number of years, there's an engaging production of the classic Off Broadway musical currently being presented by The Collective of the Department of Theater, Concordia University Chicago. It's playing one more weekend on the main stage at Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison, in Oak Park. This small but wonderful little musical is funny, passionate, and immediately beguiling.

 The Fantasticks set the record for the world's longest running musical. It opened on May 3, 1960 and played for 21,552 performances in New York alone. Over nearly six decades, there have also been hundreds of regional productions and touring companies. It's the only Off Broadway musical to win a Tony.

 The breezy score is by Harvey Schmidt, with book and lyrics by Tom Jones.

 The allegorical plot is based on an 1894 short story by French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand (1868-1918), who penned Cyrano de Bergerac.

 Inventive director Brian Fruits has reimagined the show in fresh ways. His production features a diverse company of eight talented actors who bring warmth and vitality to the musical fable.

 The Fantasticks is not just a simple story about two love-struck teens and why parents should never meddle in matchmaking. It has magic and lots of humor.

 Dashing and wily El Gallo, played by Charles Howard, is the mysterious main character and narrator. This actor is a towering presence who engages everyone instantly. He sings the show's signature number, "Try to Remember." El Gallo is also the role that launched Jerry Orbach's career.

 The story is simple. A boy (Matt Bender) and Girl (Anneliese Ayers) fall in love. They stray. Then they return wiser and more in love than before.

 The young couple have long lived next door to one another, but they get caught in the middle of a family feud, like Romeo and Juliet. They're naïve but boisterous. They are separated by a wall erected by their fathers. The two neighbors (Nate Perez and David Ziebart) are actually in cahoots to get their children to marry. But the two kids are already in love.

 The men hire a couple of traveling players to stage an abduction of the girl — with the goal of making the boy seem like a hero when he rescues her. I don't recall the original version in great detail, but I suspect this episode is now truncated or altered so as to not come off as advocating rape or violence toward women.

 Henry, portrayed by the hilarious and expressive Eamon McInerny, is a washed-up thespian who is always accompanied by his sidekick Mortimer (played in a bit of gender-bending by Angela Malera). She is clad as a Native American. There is a huge trunk, stage right, where Henry and Mortimer enter and exit. 

 The nearly ever-present Mute is played by Rachael Nuckles. She handles props and provides amplification and emphasis to the goings-on. 

 The cast sings their sweet songs accompanied by only a keyboard (played by Kevin Disch) and a harp (by Michael Magamuso). The lovely harp music was often prominent during the show.

 Charles Brown is the musical director. Christina Leinicke designed the set, which features a large gazebo in the center of the stage. Leinicke also created the whimsical costumes.

 The tech people have done a solid job, especially with the lighting. Garet Pahlkotter designed the lighting, which frequently bathes the set in warm colors.

 Though The Fantasticks has no real glitz or glitter like a lot of musicals of its vintage, it's a delightful show that's not only sweetly nostalgic but is also built upon elements of comedia dell' arte and Theater of the Absurd. It's all done beautifully and its intimacy works perfectly in this performance space.

 Tickets cost $20 though there are discounts for seniors, students, and Concordia alums. Three performances remain on April 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. and a matinee on April 9 at 2 p.m.

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