Voices ring true in The Fantasticks at Pioneer

By Siobhan Thompson
Guest Writer

Dustin Hanna as El Gallo
The Fantasticks!, an allegorical musical written in 1960, follows two fathers as they trick their children into falling in love by feigning a feud and building a wall between their two adjacent properties.  Also in the mix is a narrator who addresses the audience directly and the players interchangeably, a troupe of mutes (traditionally only one mute is in the show), and an old actor and his trusty side-kick.  The second half of the show depicts how life changes after the children are allowed to be together and how life isn’t so sweet.  The show is a challenge both dramatically and musically with harmonies in most numbers.

Technically, the show was very smooth thanks to the Director, Steve Dini, and Stage Manager ZoŃ‘ Beaman.  The lighting, designed by Danny Kipp, Isaac Robinson, and Alex Morcate, kept the mood of the show fluid and matched the happenings on-stage.  There was a series of lighting transitions in the scene set up for the opening that looked rushed, but the cast was smooth in their movement and final tableau.  The sound design and management by Jordon Ananmalay was a brilliantly blended combination of instrument and voice.  The set, designed by Laurie Biviano and Jim Wolk, and costumes designed by Svetlana Sitnikova, were very well put together, sticking to the simple nature of the show.  While costume changes were done with ease, there was some confusion when Matt returned from enduring his adventure. Having dirt, or tatters, or a black eye or something to show his road weariness could have been added – though that would have been an added cost and change, and it is understandable why the choice was made to not have his appearance altered.  

At the outset the musical quality of the cast/musicians, all led and directed by Jeremy Harris, was exceptional.  The balance between the individual instruments and the cast was wonderful. Each cast member could be heard clearly, and the individual contributions of the musicians were distinct and beautiful.  Mr. Harris did wonders showcasing the quality of each voice and instrument.  He brought out the best sound from everyone.  The harpist, Ruthanne Adams, added the whimsical and magical elements that are integral to this show, in addition to being a strong piece of the trio.  At intermission, I learned that bassist Ryan Abusaidi is a student at Pioneer, and I was pleasantly surprised as he performed with an ease and intensity that I would not expect from a younger musician.  

Johnson (The Boy) and Beaman (The Girl)
The musical challenge was met head on by each of the lead vocalists: Dustin Hanna (El Gallo), Isobel Beaman (Luisa), and Jacob Johnson (Matt).  They were strong and performed confidently with their difficult parts. The harmony between Dustin Hanna, Max Biggs (who played Bellomy, Luisa’s father), Daniel Quint (Hucklebee, Matt’s father), and Isobel and Jacob was absolutely lovely.  The show received a standing ovation for their closing show; well-deserved praise from the receptive audience of parents, students, and teachers.

Austin Hanna was magnetic in his audience interaction as Mortimer. He played all of his laughs with blithe ease and came across as a natural comic.  The Cockney dropped a couple times, but that accent is very hard to perfect when speaking quickly.  Also praise-worthy was the focus the Mutes showed throughout the show.  Being onstage, mute or still, for nearly the whole show and remaining engaged not only with the characters but the audience as well is a tall order.  They did very well in looking at the appropriate character(s) while they had their business in the forefront, drawing the audience to that character too. During the transitions or dance numbers, they engaged the audience with their faces.  With the other characters having archetypal characteristics to drive their development, the Mutes could have easily been lost in the background, but they maintained their own purpose in the performance and did well individually and as a chorus.  Each character was distinct, and stayed on their path consistently through the show. The show moved along well, and kept a good pace.

Michelle Edwards (Mute)
With such a challenging text to work with, the cast had their work cut out for them in character development, most likely due to the complex nature of the archetypal characters. There is great nuance in the script, and references to literature that a novice cast most likely were not privy too. Some fairly in-depth research and understanding of the genres that contribute to the nature of the play (vaudeville, archetypal literature, Shakespeare, etc.) is needed to effectively deliver the messages in the story and it seemed that some characters at some point or other did not fully grasp the words they were speaking. Additionally, the fantastic (pun intented) whimsy of this first act challenges the actors to completely romanticize the dangers of forbidden love to an almost goofy degree. This required performative investment paired with the perplexing text add up to high-stakes for the cast. Constant attention must be paid to your vocal and physical choices when in the moment as well as when a performer is secondary to the more prominent action on stage.

It is a truly enjoyable production. The voices were incredible and the music and technical production were very well done, so much so that I don’t think I can give them adequate credit in writing. This show is nuanced and difficult as well as vocally challenging, going from more whimsical musical phrasing to jazz minor chords while each singer rose to the challenge.  My final note to the cast and crew is: please keep performing, because you brought a difficult show to life and you did a marvelous job.  With each production, the acting talent of Pioneer’s theatrical corps will just keep getting better. Yet even now, the standing ovation says a lot.

You can see more great work by the talented students/staff at Pioneer High School during their spring musical production of HELLO DOLLY! See them at 1290 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose.

-Siobhan Thompson is an accomplished Bay Area theatrical professional who's credits include stage management with Shady Shakespeare, Hillbarn Theatre, makeup artistry with West Bay Opera, as well as the USITT Award and the James Clancy Dramaturgy Fellowship from San Jose State University. She is also currently serving on the board of the Orchard Valley Fine Arts Association which organizes the annual Santa Clara Arts Walk: a fundraiser for all Northern California non-profit & student arts groups who participate.
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