Chicago Reviews

In Lake Forest, a somewhat uneven “The Fantasticks” still finds a way to entertain

Review by Bradley Laas; photo by North Shore Camera Club.

Deep in the suburbs, tucked away in an old high school building, you will find a small theater company by the name of Citadel Theater. This theater acts as an oasis for the suburbs as it provides high-end theater in a land where subpar community theater is abundant. Citadel’s production of the classic musical The Fantasticks holds true to the idea that beautiful art can be created in some of the most unusual spaces. 

The Fantasticks, the 1960 show that became the longest-running musical in history (42 years), is a fourth wall destroying romantic comedy romp about two neighboring fathers who devise a plan to get their children together with a plan consisting of a fake feud, a wall (played by the often scene-stealing Kristina Meima), and an attempted kidnapping. These all make for comedic situations that often had me laughing out loud on quite a few occasions.  

Ultimately, the beauty of the show comes from the acting of the small ensemble. The love between the kids, Matt and Louisa (played by Jonah Cochin and Aurora Penepacker) is both heartwarming and sweet. Watching it made me long for the days of my first love. Further, the fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy (played by John B. Boss and Bill Chamberlain), who see the act of nurturing children as similar to growing a garden, offer great vocals and comedic relief to the sometimes too-romantic lead couple. 

The whole thing, though, is narrated by a robber named El Gallo (Brian Hupp), a central figure that left virtually no imprint on my brain. Whether the fault lies with the actor or director Pat Murphy, El Gallo’s numbers (despite the facts that they include the ballad “Try to Remember” and Hupp’s voice is excellent) in this production are mostly forgettable and his interruptions feel like unnecessary intrusions into the plot. Instead of exciting the audience and leading the story, El Gallo becomes a sleepy emcee who leaves much to be desired. Given the critical importance of the role, this is a misstep that hurts the entire production.

El Gallo’s only remarkable contribution here is his introduction of the players, Mortimer (John Benischek) and Henry (Henry Michael Odum). Mortimer, in an attempt to remember some Shakespeare, states “there are only small actors. Not small parts.” This is proven wrong by Benischeck and Odum as the two steal the show from the rest of the cast. This comedic duo gives the funniest performance of the evening and certainly demands the biggest applause.

Another misstep is found in the uneven vocals. None of the singing is bad, per se, but none of it lives up to the legendary libretto created by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Duets between Matt and everyone else are particularly difficult because Cochin’s voice is often hard to hear in comparison to his song partner. Maybe that is just a simple mic fix, though in this very small theatre it is really unforgivable.

Luckily for the actors and the audience, this is not a sung-through musical. Instead, the bulk of the action is based on, well, acting, which, as stated above, was pretty much impeccable. Even the rougher musical numbers are tolerable because the performers acted through the songs so well. The result is that the show was still, overall, enjoyable. 

As a show, The Fantasticks offers nothing profound or new. However, it makes for a light night of theatre in times as trying as these. It is nothing more than a simple love story. Maybe we need more simple love stories in our lives. The simplicity of the script and the story makes for an easy-to-follow night of light-hearted theatre. I, for one, am a fan of such a night.

This production does teach us a valuable lesson about theatre: you do not need the biggest stage to make an impact. This performance becomes larger than life despite its cramped staging in the old high school building. This lesson is something tough for new theatergoers to understand. You can still find theatrical magic in the most unlikely of places. And there is sure to be some magic found in this production of The Fantasticks. If you’re a city-dweller, it may not be worth the trip to Lake Forest for a night of theatre. However, if you’re a local, be sure to drop in on this solid if not spectacular rendition of The Fantasticks. 

The Fantasticks is now playing at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd, Lake Forest, IL, until Mar 8. The show runs approximately two hours; there is on intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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