In his director's notes for the Countryside Community Theatre's presentation of The Fantasticks, William Myatt writes that he was honored to helm the production, but also concerned, as Tom Jones' and Harvey Schmidt's minimalist musical wasn't originally intended for a 900-seat venue such as North Scott High School's Fine Arts Auditorium. "Would a show of such intimacy be swallowed by the size of the North Scott theatre?" asks Myatt in his program notes.
Well, if Friday night's happy audience response didn't already convince him, allow me to answer Mr. Myatt: "Nope."
Directorially inventive, cleverly designed and boasting some terrifically talented performers, Countryside's The Fantasticks is a production of incredible charm. The available playing area is roughly halved in size, but Dani Grothus' lighting effects are so specific (and effective) that you don't notice the portions of the stage not being employed, and with the show's marvelous musicians - Page Grubb on piano and Pamela Weest-Carrasco on harp - performing delightfully close to the action, Myatt makes the North Scott auditorium could feel as cozy as a 100-seat cabaret.
This scaling down of space also allows the leads to score major laughs through the subtlest of readings and inflections. Erin O'Shea, in particular, is really something. This young actress is so lovely, and boasts such a pretty soprano, that her being so off-handedly hilarious as well is almost an embarrassment of riches. As the determined ingénue Luisa, who's less in love with Jack Kloppenborg's Matt than she is with herself, O'Shea make teenage pettiness and self-centeredness seem like captivating character traits, and when she leaves Matt for the chance to embrace her wild side, her giddiness is intoxicating. (Catching sight of the villain who abducted her, O'Shea's Luisa squeals "It's my bandit!" before making the moves on him.)
And Kloppenborg is a subversively sneaky comedian. The key to his inventiveness - both here and in such shows as St. Ambrose University's Urinetown and The Threepenny Opera - is that he plays characters who don't know they're funny; Kloppenborg's laugh lines are delivered not just with earnestness but with pronounced seriousness, which makes them even funnier. Both he and O'Shea sing beautifully and build a true rapport in The Fantasticks. The show could easily falter with less connected performers, but this duo makes their every minute of stage time feel true.
As narrator El Gallo, Pat Burr could stand to be more vocally confident; he's hitting the right notes but, on Friday, seemed hesitant about selling them. Yet he displays a devious charisma and a great, insinuating smile, and Elise Johnson provides smart reactions as the musical's ever-busy Mute. John Donald O'Shea and John Wagner, as the lovers' meddling fathers, perform enjoyable vaudeville numbers and sing in splendid, character-fueled harmony, and while both were a little tardy on their cue pick-ups, these lags weren't debilitating, and were nothing compared to the lags in Jeff Kelly's scenes.
Kelly is one of the oddest performers I've ever seen on a local stage; he's like Crispin Glover after a fifth of vodka. Alternating his deliveries between a stage-whisper and a slur, the actor breaks up his sentences so that the pauses nearly last longer than the words he speaks, and all the while he seems blithely unaware than anyone is on stage with him. (Kelly's certainly not unaware of the audience, though, as his every utterance is directed squarely at us.) Yet while most of his Friday-night routines were met with stunned silence, a vocal minority did find his antics riotous, and thankfully, he shares most of his stage time with the marvelous Adam Overberg, who's so comically inspired that he doesn't just improve his sequences with Kelly - he rescues them.
Despite occasional hiccups, Countryside's production of The Fantasticks is a fizzy, endearing one, and while I won't give the effect away, keep your eyes on the wooden chest placed stage-right. It isn't a very large set piece, but it contains true magic - much like this small-scaled production that yields enormous amounts of pleasure.
For tickets, call (563) 285-6228.