Arts preview: 'The Fantasticks'

Jim Fischer

Short North Stage is dusting off a piece of classic musical theater this summer, presenting the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones piece "The Fantasticks."

But this is no by-the-book production of the popular show ("The Fantasticks" ran Off-Broadway for 42 years, making it the longest-running show of any kind in the U.S.). Director Jonathan Flom has set the play in the American West during the Dust Bowl. The decision "shifts the entire way the story is told," Flom said, but not the story itself.

"It's like looking at the same thing but from a different angle," he said.

Framing the story of community, young love and coming of age through the lens of this difficult time period "provides the reason to tell the story," Flom said. Rather than breaking the "fourth wall" and narrating the story to the audience, the characters all play off of one woman so traumatized by the economic despair that she has been rendered mute.

"It helps having someone to tell the story to," said Emma Coniglio, who plays young lover Luisa.

Brian Hupp, who plays El Gallo, the play's "narrator" and prime mover, said the change impacts the motivation for his performance of the show's signature tune, "Try to Remember."

"Traditionally, the song is sung to the audience, but in directing it to [the Mute], I'm almost pulling the words out of my head as I'm singing, rather than a prepared piece."

Music director Lloyd Butler has tailored the score to fit the setting, replacing the harp in the original with steel guitar and banjo alongside piano.

"It's changed the feel of some of the songs, but the style fits and lends itself quite well," Butler said. "It adds a layer to the sounds without exploitation, without changing the composers' intent."

"The Fantasticks" has always been a sort of chamber musical - small cast, small instrumentation - and Short North Stage embraces this by staging the show in the round in the intimate Green Room at the Garden Theater. The proximity to the audience on all sides forces the cast to adopt a razor-sharp focus, said Robert Carlton Stimmel, who plays young lover Matt. Flom added staging the play in the round means a different audience experience depending on where you're seated.

Garden Theater Green Room

Thursdays-Sundays, July 21-Aug. 14

1187N. High St., Short North

shortnorthstage.org