The Vortex Theatre: The Fantasticks: Review

Through August 5; Tickets: vortexabq.org, 505.247.8600

Be transported to an open field with fireflies, or an old barn, or the back of a traveling troupe’s ramshackle wagon, for some shows are just meant for summertime. The black box of the Vortex Theatre dressed for The Fantasticks can be any of those things, as the enchanting El Gallo enjoins us to think of the season as simply “September.”

Director Debi Kierst really gets this show—unlike Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, who famously wrote after opening night in May 1960, “Perhaps ‘The Fantasticks’ is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures.” The musical then went on for 42 years. 

Director Kierst prepares us for the nostalgia this musical will evoke even before the characters introduce themselves. The Mute (Pete Parkin) ambles around the theater, checking on the props, the musicians (Mindy Sampson on piano and Miriam Schilling on harp), seating himself in the audience, tipping his hat to latecomers at the door. Our narrator El Gallo (William R. Stafford) joins him, and even takes on the task of greeting the audience with the usual electronic-device warnings and fundraising pleas. It’s a relaxed and pleasant way to settle in for the evening’s entertainment.

The gossamer plot is this: Boy and girl fall in love, believing that their fathers are against it. Spoiler: It’s a set-up.

The Fantasticks always reminds me of Romeo and Juliet; first a comedy, then a tragedy. In Act I, young lovers Luisa (Sabina Lueras) and Matt (Walker Sikkens) have surmounted the obstacle placed between them, a literal wall separating their yards, and sing “Metaphor,” a love song. Being inexperienced, they don’t seem to know where to go from here. Matt’s father Hucklebee (Dave McDowell) and Luisa’s father Bellomy (Lorri Oliver) must turn for help to El Gallo, who proposes a staged abduction in the moonlight to stimulate the romance (“It Depends On What You Pay”). After another sweet and familiar love song, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” Luisa’s fake abduction takes place, Matt is triumphant, and the act closes on a “Happy Ending.”

A note here: the original abduction scene was referred to as a “rape,” as in the word’s archaic meaning, “to carry off.” Nevertheless, audiences over the years began to find the word “rape” offensive. An alternative version of “The Rape Ballet” called “Abductions” is used in this rendition, along with edits to “It Depends on What You Pay,” using homonyms like “raid.” The substitute lyrics and music were written by the original musical team of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.

Many doe-eyed sopranos have taken on the only female role in the play, that of Luisa, the 16-year-old ingenue, including Liza Minelli and Kristin Chenoweth. Sabina Lueras is utterly charming as a teenaged girl, and her stage presence every bit as mature as that of her veteran cohorts. She nails every note, even that sustained high B Flat in “Round and Round,” with a silvery tone and a sure ear. To say she is “exceptional” (in the words of her vocal coach and “father,” Lorri Oliver, who also serves as the play’s musical director) is not overstating it. Do not miss her in this role.

Another amazing fact about the excellent cast: Sikkens as Matt took over the role fewer than two weeks before opening night. My theater companion and I were certain he’d sung this role many times, but Debi Kierst assured us that we had just seen his first performance as Matt. Sikkens is nearly flawless as the young man who becomes eager to see the world before settling down. 

Stafford is devilishly sexy and worldly-wise, the perfect El Gallo, a role created by the late Jerry Orbach. Oliver and McDowell kid around, dance and sing well together as the supposedly feuding fathers. Parkin as The Mute (originally The Handyman) projects affectionate bemusement. There is an absolutely delightful sequence (or two) by Peter Kierst as Henry, an old actor, and Jim Cady as Mortimer, a Cockney man dressed up as an American Indian. Kierst and Cady are two of Albuquerque’s most talented actors and stage directors; they take this opportunity to chew the scenery to shreds. It’s deliberate and we love it.

I watched my high school boyfriend kiss another girl in The Fantasticks, sang Luisa’s songs in a college recital, and finally got to see the musical at home in the Sullivan Street Playhouse in New York in the ‘70s. This production at the Vortex is just as unforgettable.

—Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes ABQArts.com.

Photos by Ryan Dobbs.

Top: Sabina Lueras as Luisa and Walker Sikkens as Matt.

Middle: Lorri Oliver as Bellomy; William R. Stafford as El Gallo; Dave McDowell as Hucklebee; Pete Parkin as The Mute.

Bottom 1: William R. Stafford as El Gallo.

Bottom 2: Jim Cady (l.) as Mortimer; Peter Kierst as Henry.

Below Left: Walker Sikkens as Matt.  Below Right: Lorri Oliver as Bellomy.