AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Harvey Schmidt
Lyrics & book by Tom Jones
Directed by Dianna Shuster
Presented by and at SF Playhouse
536 Sutter St., San Francisco / (415) 677-9596

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"The Fantasticks!" lays claim to having been the longest-running musical in the world until it closed in 2002, perhaps because the 44-year-old show had run out of steam for today's audiences. Proof of that may be found in the SF Playhouse production that closes out the professional company's inaugural season. The production benefits from a likable cast and some charming music by Harvey Schmidt with lyrics by Tom Jones. However, the book, also by Jones, and -- to a degree -- Dianna Shuster's direction reduce the characters to caricatures and the plot to simplistic rather than simple.

On the plus side, Louis Parnell as Hucklebee, father of 20-year-old Matt (Mark Farrell) and Brian Scott as Bellomy, father of 16-year-old Luisa (Katy Stephan) are both amusing as next-door neighbors who think that the best way to get their offspring together is to try to keep them apart. Likewise, Farrell and Stephan do well as the two young people, though Stephan's singing can be shrill at times. Artistic director Bill English plays El Gallo, the plot's mastermind. He does well with the show's first and best-known song, "Try to Remember," but he needs a more mysterious presence.

Joe Bellan as Mortimer and Graham Cowley as Henry, two washed-up old actors, are amusing. In fact, Bellan can be hilarious, but they try too hard sometimes. They're also saddled with a most un-PC task, staging a kidnapping of Luisa, an act that El Gallo calls a rape. The most consistently arresting presence is Shaye Troha as the Mute, who helps engineer the scenes and observes all the action. Troha has a luminescent quality and moves gracefully (she also serves as dance captain). Musical director John Florencio provides solid accompaniment on piano. The lights by Bart Grady, set by English, sculptures by Dave Gardner, scenic art by Vola Ruben and costumes by Emily Ehrlich Inget, as well as other credits in the program, point to a low-budget production and still-young company where everyone seems to do double duty.

The space itself, though near Union Square, is small and rundown (the toilets weren't working on opening night, forcing patrons to the hotel next door), but SF Playhouse does seem to have spirit and spunk, enough to announce an intriguing second season that includes "The Violet Hour" by Richard Greenburg, "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder, "Monster" by Neal Bell, "Kimberly Akimbo" by David Lindsay-Abaire and a musical TBA. So with this upcoming season and the company's enthusiasm, one can hold out hope for what's ahead.

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