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That Note, Way Up There: Standout singers Ed Levy (left) as the narrator and the bandit El Gallo and Aaron Eppolito as leading lover Matt bring 'The Fantasticks' fine musical moments.

Love and Happiness

All the world's a romantic comedy with 'The Fantasticks' and a Santa Cruz setting of 'Ah, Wilderness!'

By Rob Pratt

DEBUTING WITH a production of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks, OpenStage Repertory hits the boards with a hard-to-sell show. Though it's been running continuously in New York City since opening in 1960 (which makes it the longest-running in America), the musical doesn't have near the star power of other golden-age-of-Broadway fare, and with a showcase Act I number that guffaws at rape, The Fantasticks risks alienating the politically correct generation. For these reasons, OpenStage's winning production is a delightful surprise.

With a cast of unusually strong singers for such a community theater production, The Fantasticks, running at the Actors' Theatre through March 12, is a charming show brimming with the optimism of the last great period of American prosperity, the 1950s. But it's not without a cautionary subtext. Following the story of two young lovers and their fathers, who have designs on arranging a marriage with a manipulative bit of child psychology, The Fantasticks has a happy ending--at the end of Act I. Act II opens with the day after the romantic night before when everyone, "fantastick" lovers and scheming fathers, gets real.

Leading off the show as narrator and later playing the bandit El Gallo, Ed Levy is a standout singer with a powerful baritone. Santa Cruz stage newcomer Aaron Eppolito as the lover Matt, however, brings the show its finest musical moments. His voice is clear and focused, his phrasing impeccable and his delivery consistently solid.

Dramatically, the show sags at times, often in comic interludes meant for comic relief from the otherwise rather maudlin romantic story. Part of the problem is the cramped, technically bereft stage at the Actors' Theatre. The Fantasticks is a show that needs melodramatic gestures, cutesy stage business and sight gags in the background. In such a small acting space, however, it just comes off as a distraction.

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks runs Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through March 12. Actors' Theatre, 1001 Center St, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12-$18. (438.1235)

Ah, Santa Cruz!

RESETTING EUGENE O'NEILL'S classic Ah, Wilderness! in a Santa Cruz of 1907 gives visiting theater professor Margaret Booker, director of the UCSC production running through March 5, a handful of chances to pay tuneful homage during scene-change interludes. But other than a few modifications to O'Neill's original, the story remains relatively unaffected and could just as easily be set in Anywhere, USA.

Ah, Wilderness! is a coming-of-age story and a portrait of middle America at the dawn of the 20th century. A mild comedy, the play follows the Miller family during the Fourth of July, focusing on high schooler Richard (Andy Justus), who outrages his family with a taste for racy literature and who turns sullen when jilted by his true love.

Justus plays the lovelorn, rebellious Richard with a sense of cosmic despair that dulls the comic edge of his misadventures. Supporting players are uniformly strong, but standouts are Brendan Godfrey and Shannon Warrick as Richard's parents, Elizabeth Millican as the tart who tempts him to the dark side and Ali El-Gasseir (costumed in a bonny sailor suit) as little brother Tommy.

Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! runs Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Mainstage, Theater Arts Center, UCSC, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $6-$9. (459.2159)

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From the March 1-8, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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