By Dawn Watson
For Michael Disher, staging “The Fantasticks” is like revisiting an old friend, albeit one in the “it’s complicated” category of relationship.
The enduring play, which holds the title of the world’s longest-running musical, was the very first production he tackled when he became the Center Stage Director at the Southampton Cultural Center back in February, 2008 . And now, close to eight years later, Mr. Disher has decided that it’s time to reconnect.
The reasons, he says, are both simple and complex. The show, which on the surface seems to be a straightforward story of young love, is an audience favorite—the original off-Broadway production ran for more than 42 years and 17,000 performances. It’s also not a difficult piece to produce, as the cast is fairly small and the stage is spare. But upon closer inspection, the allegorical tale is also quite deep. The layered story, which is rooted in the premise that everything is not always as it seems, is full of wisdom, especially given a bit of perspective.
The musical, which opens the 2015-2016 Center Stage season at the Southampton Cultural Center, tells the story of a pair of star-crossed young lovers, Matt and Luisa. The families of the next-door neighbors have been involved in a years-long war.
Or have they?
It turns out that the fathers of the two have concocted a false feud in order for their children, who at heart are rebellious by virtue of being young, to fall in love. But the elaborate hoax is eventually discovered, which leads to anger, recrimination, heartbreak and all-together unsatisfying conclusion.
Or does it?
It’s the intricacy of the seemingly obvious story of forbidden love that drew him back to “The Fantasticks,” says Mr. Disher. The 1960 musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, which features songs such as “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” not only still holds up, it’s incredibly relevant today, he reports.
“It’s a magical remembrance piece, but there are also some harsh realities,” he says of the storyline. “There’s a sense of reevaluating and looking at the choices you’ve made in life, and the subsequent consequences of those choices.”
The journey that “The Fantasticks,” which Mr. Disher has co-choreographed with David Hoffman to the musical direction of Karen Hochstedler, takes its audience on that makes the show so interesting, he adds. Close to a decade later, the director sees the story through a very different lens than he did when he first mounted the production in 2008.
“Clearly, where we are personally fuses how we see a show, that’s one of the joys of theater,” Mr. Disher says. “And this time around, I see that it’s more about foresight and hindsight, about looking at love from a more mature angle.”
“In the end, it’s about acceptance,” he adds. “Maybe I didn’t realize that eight years ago, but I do now.”
The actors in this production also imbue their characters with the depth of the storytelling, says Mr. Disher. The lead roles pack a dramatic wallop, he says of Adam Fronc as Matt and Ella Watts as Luisa.
This is the first romantic lead in a musical at Center Stage for Mr. Fronc, reports the director. The young actor has previously starred in more than a dozen Center Stage productions at the Southampton Cultural Center, including, notably, “A Chorus Line,” It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Cabaret” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“It’s been a long time coming, and Adam has done a lot of good work for me,” says Mr. Disher. “He has matured so beautifully. In my opinion, he’s particularly good in this role, his most challenging vocal role to date.”
It’s the very first Center Stage production for Ms. Watts, whose credits include the role of Louisa in NBC’s live three-hour telecast of “The Sound of Music” with Carrie Underwood and Little Red in North Fork Community Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods,” for which she earned the Best Actress in a Musical award from Broadway World.com.
“She completely lights up the stage,” Mr. Disher says of his newest ingénue. “It’s such a lovely gift to see her play this budding young woman.”
Other standouts in the show are frequent Center Stage star Dan Becker, who was the Old Actor in Mr. Disher’s original production and now takes on the substantial role of El Gallo, and Frances Sherman, who plays The Mute.
“Dan handles it so beautifully, his interesting take on the character adds a whole different texture, says Mr. Disher. “And Frances brings so much magic and artistry to her role. She is like an ever-evolving Erte sculpture.”
If everyone has done their jobs right, the director says that audience members should be as deeply touched by the musical as he has been.
“By the end of the curtain, not only will you be reminded that there’s so much to remember about this long-running show,” he says. “Hopefully you’ll also be moved when you realize there’s even more to think about when you leave.”
“The Fantasticks” stages at the Southampton Cultural Center for three weekends, October 1 through October 18. Thursday performances are at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m.. The show stars Adam Fronc, Ella Watts, Daniel Becker, Frances Sherman, David Hoffman, Richard Adler, Philip Reichert and Stephan Scheck as Mortimer and features Dustin Schepps and Thomas Wheeler. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $12for students. For additional information and reservations, visit www.scc-arts.org.