On a weekday afternoon, Presser Hall on the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor is full of music students and rings with the sounds of trombones, pianos and clarinets from the classes and practice rooms. Descending the stairs brings you to the basement where, behind two closed doors, a dozen undergraduates and three faculty members are engaged in a focused, fast-paced rehearsal.
The rich bass voice of director George Hogan fills the air, pianist Nelda Milligan strikes an arpeggio, and the cast for UMHB’s next show, “The Fantasticks,” works to transform the cozy space into a place of “moonlight and magic.”
“The Fantasticks” is the longest running production of any kind in the history of American theater, and has played a staggering 11,103 times. The play was created by two Texans: Tom Jones, lyricist and librettist, and Harvey Schmidt, composer, who met while attending the University of Texas.
The 1960 musical tells the story of two neighboring fathers who trick their children into falling in love. The allegorical tale has the men employing itinerant actors to fake an abduction of the girl so the boy can heroically rescue her — only to have the kids tumble to the deception, break up and go their separate ways. Fantasy sequences show the dispiriting experiences in the real world each former lover must endure, and they return to one another older and wiser — renewing their affections in the light of wisdom and maturity.
A narrator, El Gallo, speaks to the audience, singing the show’s big song: “Try To Remember” and most audiences will be familiar with “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.” Costuming is minimal, sets rudimentary and the musical accompaniment is usually two or three instruments — the UMHB version will have faculty members Milligan on piano and Stephen Crawford playing percussion.
The student actors’ crisp diction, overseen by dialogue director Penny Hogan, pinpoints the poetic book and is a requisite for the performing venue: the proscenium stage at Temple’s Cultural Activities Center.
With only a week to go, “we’ll move into the CAC for rehearsals on Monday,” George Hogan said last week, each small production detail is being addressed.
Roxanne Bodkin and Matthew Manchigiah play the two lovers and the role of El Gallo is portrayed by Josiah Davis.
Hogan is everywhere at once: coaching Davis on the big song, helping the jesters convincingly flog the character Matt and even standing in for Bodkin to demonstrate — falsetto and all — the most effective way with her role. The chorus and crew seem completely in synch with Hogan and at once incorporate his suggestions into their onstage actions.
El Gallo begins his lines to the audience and Hogan emphasizes: “We need more energy.” Davis turns his delivery up a notch as the director nods his approval, with one last request: “How about a smile?” And the mysterious, charismatic narrator begins his poetic promises of a world of beauty and grandeur.