Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow day review #1: Do you believe in magic?

Performance: The Fantasticks
Theater: Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theater ( 1215 U Street, NW,)
Metro: U St station. Directions here.
Genre: Musical
Cost: $10 for the under 30 if you call the week of the show. $25 “New Deal” tickets for anyone (call for these as well). And there are $35 tix from Goldstar for those who are over 30 and miss new deal.
Dates: Through January 10
Rating: 4/5 Starving Artists

I’ll start out by saying that I’m a big fan of magic. I always have been. In fact, there was a time when I aspired to be an armature magician (“aspiring to be an armature” about explains how good I was). So, the new production of The Fantasticks at Arena Stage had me at “tah-dah”. From the very first moments of this play, when the narrator conjures flowers and actors from nowhere, you know this is going to be a very different theater experience. Was it an amazing theater experience? No, probably not. But it sure was different.

Arena offers an intriguing reimagining of the play that holds the distinction of being the world’s longest running show (17,162 performances off-Broadway from 1960 to 2002). Director Amanda Dehnert has set all of the action in an abandoned amusement park. This accomplishes two things: first, it let’s the fairytale elements of the show flourish in a more imaginative, less literal environment. Second, it gives her an excuse to infuse the whole show with magic. Not the “magic of theater” mind you. Like real, excellently executed, Vegas style magic. These are more than just parlor tricks; they are startlingly grand illusions. Lady AWesome pointed out that the magic was so good that it occasionally distracted from the rest of the show. I too spent entire scenes trying to figure out how they did this or that. But all told, I thought the illusions were the strongest part of the show.

Which is to say that the production is not without its flaws. The original staging was in a theater small enough to spit across. In U St’s beautiful Lincoln Theatre (which is probably too big to shout across) the play gets a little lost. It feels as if it was stretched to fit the space, and in some places it’s been pulled a little too thin. Not all of the singing was as strong as I wanted it to be. Most notably, Sebastian La Cause seemed to really struggle as the play’s narrator and trickster, El Gallo. He, and most of the others give solid performances, but the music seems to have been made subservient to the more technical aspects of the show. I should say that Addi McDaniel was quite good as Luisa, but If you’re going to direct an iconic musical like the Fantasticks, I’m not sure you should sell the music part so short.

But when all is said and done, I’m happy that magic is appearing in more DC theaters. Lady AWesome and I LOVED the version of Macbeth we saw at Folger last year, which was directed by Teller (yes, of Penn and Teller). And in both cases, the magic was more than just a trick to keep your attention. It added to the sense of fantasy and mystery at the heart of both shows. I think that this unique take makes this production worth seeing, in spite of its occasional failings. So go take a look and then make some comments appear below to tell us what you thought.

And yes, I was ashamed of some of those magic puns back there.

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