Tom Jones Remembers the Time of Our Youth
by Robert M. Gardner
The opening lines of “The Fantasticks” run: “Try to remember the time in September / When life was slow and oh so mellow…”–setting the mood for this stunningly popular musical. The dashing baritone El Gallo (impressive Phillip Percy Williams) opens with the oft-recorded “Time to Remember” to an appreciative audience. The lyrics still echo in our minds.
When we leave the theater, we remember our own past loves and losses. Perhaps this sentiment stimulates “The Fantasticks” 42-year run, which began on May 3, 1960, making it a staple of theaters around the world. When Tom Jones penned the words and Harvey Schmidt wrote the music, did they envision the universal impact of their lyrics and music?
“The Fantasticks,” the fantastically successful musical comedy, lives up to its reputation as the most popular musical ever on the American stage. The show moves quickly, the songs are catchy, and soon we are rooting for the lovers: Matt (dashing Cordell Wesselink) and Luisa (precocious Nicole Thordsen). Wearing a college block-letter sweater, Matt woos the young Luisa. As they beautifully sing “Metaphor,” their magical duet brings us hope for young love.
Like the original, Novato Theater Company makes sparing use of set and costume. The stage, furnished with two steamer trunks and raised platforms, uses poles to display banners with the show’s title and backdrops for scenes. The mute Harlequin (Nick Moore), traditionally attired in white pants, multicolored vest and Mardi Gras mask, brandishes a stick to represent the wall that separates the lovers.
The ensemble sport French peasant costumes, complete with masks. These wondrous Commedia costumes contrast with the El Gallo’s Zorro cape and Matt’s 50s college sweater. The clashing costumes make a running joke.
Matt and Luisa’s dads sparkle with clever comic relief, providing fine singing to add to the hilarity. Their duet “Never Say No” drolly lectures us about the contrariness of youth. Reluctantly, they recognize that children need to rebel to show their independence. The conniving fathers, Bellomy (comical Jim Fye) and Hucklebee (fussy, funny Javier Alarcon), perform vaudeville antics with the ensemble, producing hearty laughs.
As the lead, Phillip Percy Williams is outstanding as El Gallo, showing great range as actor and singer. Williams cajoles, persuades, and offers sage advice. Williams commands our attention, always. The duet “I Can See It,” sung by El Gallo and Matt, stands out as a highlight for me. Their strong voices and tight harmonies make for great listening.
The Novato Theater is a pleasant surprise, located in a strip mall with ample parking and easy freeway access. The seats are wide and spacious, complete with cup holders. The lighting is superb, the sound system well-designed, and best of all, the staff is gracious and welcoming.
The orchestra plays on the left side of the stage, with the highly talented David Shepard switching effortlessly between piano and electronic keyboard, ably aided by percussionist Bryce Williams.
Musical Director David Shepard and Director Larry Williams get high praise for such an enjoyable show. The excellent, experienced cast bring us gifted voices and inspired acting. Novato Theater Company’s new version of “The Fantasticks” is a crowd pleaser.
“The Fantasticks”: lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt, directed by Larry Williams, at Novato Theater Company, Novato, California, through Sunday, April 29, 2018. Info: novatotheatercompany.org
Cast: Phillip Percy Williams, Nicole Thordsen, Cordell Wesselink, Javier Alarcon, Jim Fye, Michael Walraven, John Griffin, and Nick Moore.