March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Director Jane Falion brings a modern touch to the classic musical

Friday, June 24 — Almost as ubiquitous as "Our Town" on community and regional stages, "The Fantasticks" explores similarly timeless themes — and requires only the simplest of staging. With words and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, "Fantasticks" cleverly blends sentimental life lessons with satirical jabs at its own genre.

Michigan State University Summer Circle's current production, directed by Jane Falion, lovingly re-imagines the story's classic elements with modern sensibilities.

Like "Pyramus and Thisbe" or "Romeo and Juliet," "Fantasticks" follows two young lovers separated by a wall and 'feuding' families. Little do they know that their fathers' feud — which includes hiring a traveling performer to further challenge the couple — is being staged in order to preempt their inevitable rebellion and elopement.

But true love comes with more effort than just fending off bad actors with swords, and the lovers and fathers learn that romantic fates are not easily arranged.
Beyond the veiled premise, "The Fantasticks" maintains a surprisingly post-ironic wit that permeates the songs and dialogue. Though sometimes sappy and obvious, the show's fearless dive into darker themes during the second act redeems its periodic preachiness.

The ensemble cast made up of Summer Circle's repertory players and Riverwalk veterans commits fully to their characters, even when some of them have no dialogue at all.
Chris Robinson and Betsy Bledsoe play the star-crossed lovers with sincere enthusiasm. Leslie Hull and Brittane Rowe are curiously cast as the fathers, although both women comfortably and comparably exude swaggering maleness without playing the joke.

They are matched by Chad DeKatch, whose natural charisma perfectly fits the swarthy and seductive El Gallo, narrator, vagabond and professional mischief maker. Claudia Dibbs provides El Gallo's assistant Mute with a physical voice laden with innocent charm. Lastly, Mark Bethea and Nicholas Dressel play El Gallo's hired guns with consistent comical physicality, providing some of the shows greatest sight gags.

Musical director Seth Burk provides strong musical direction and piano accompaniment to songs like "Try to Remember." At certain moments, overly casual gender-bending, an easily broken fourth wall and a clothing anachronism provide puzzling inconsistencies, but their subtleness should evade the notice of most casual audiences. More akin to Sondheim than Rodgers and Hammerstein, "The Fantasticks" is a beautiful, multi-generational musical comedy meant to be enjoyed more than once.

"The Fantasticks"
Michigan State University Summer Circle Theatre
of MSU Auditorium on the lawn next to the Red Cedar River (bleacher
seating is available, or you can bring your own chair or blanket)
8 p.m. Friday, June 25 and Saturday, June 26
(517) 355-6690