"I liked it - but what on earth have I just seen?" was a sentiment seemingly shared by a number of audience members on leaving a full-house preview opening night of Waipukurau Little Theatre's latest production The Fantasticks this week.
After first hitting the stage in 1960, The Fantasticks has gone on to become the world's longest running musical and the longest running show in American theatre history, and with its timeless, light-hearted theme of young love it is easy to see why.
In essence, the story revolves around two neighbouring teenage lovers, Luisa, played by Keshia Fletcher, and Matt, played by Hugh Marsh, whose romance, while starting out moonstruck and starry-eyed, is tested as time progresses.
El Gallo, played by a shiny cape-clad Jon Fletcher, is the play's narrator and also on the scene are the pair's fathers - Huckabee (David Perry) and Bellomy (Edward Carleton-Holmes). These two, unaware that their children have already hooked up, conspire to use reverse psychology to bring them together, forbidding them to see each other, and building a wall between two houses, and that's when it all starts turning rather strange.
Berry and Carleton-Holmes are fabulous - they're clown-like, from costumes to characterisations - Berry with a down-home American twang and Carleton-Holmes with a slightly mincy, high-pitched shriek and a fixation with his garden.
The play opens with a simple black set, a small raised platform on the stage, and a colourful large box sitting to the side. The mute, played by Connor Hirst, represents the wall and lurks around observing the scenes, handing round props and employing theatrical devices such as sprinkling glitter over the characters to represent rain.
The fathers hire El Gallo to stage an abduction of the children to bring them together, and out of the box pops Henry (Micheal Fleming) and Mortimer (Simon Law), who El Gallo has called on to assist with the kidnapping.
Law's Mortimer is hugely entertaining - he's waffly, theatrical, overly dramatic and riveting on stage. As his sidekick, dressed initially in native American headdress, Fleming is also hilarious as he demonstrates his acting forte - the long-winded "death" scene.
The second act sees the young lovers facing up to the reality of the light of day and become uncertain of each other. Here the Waipukurau show really began gathering momentum - more appearances from Mortimer and Henry ensue, who take Matt off into the real world, while the worldly El Gallo, ensnares Luisa, and also opens her eyes to the pain and horror of real life. This hurt he inflicts, however, is to help her appreciate the love she has with Matt, and there is a happy ending for all concerned.
To get all this across on a small stage where the play relies on the characters, song, and theatrical devices is no mean feat, and director Terry Coyle has obviously had fun with this task - there's a high-energy, vaudevillian edge to the show. The intimacy of the set and the presence of the narrator makes the audience feel part of the production, and it seems the players are also looking in from the outside, aware of the gimmicks they are using to lure the watchers into the drama.
And then there is the music of course. Written by Tom Jones, the tunes rock along giving momentum to the play - sometimes fast and frantic, sometimes slow and romantic. Off-stage Paul Carnegie-Jones on piano and Cefyn Gauden on drums are seamless, their presence steering a steady course through this rollicking rollercoaster of theatrical entertainment.
* Colourplus Waipukurau, phone (06) 858 7116
* The Fantasticks
* Book and lyrics by Tom Jones
* Music by Harvey Schmidt.
* Directed by Terry Coyle.
* Waipukurau Little Theatre
* Runs until Saturday, April 9.
* Reviewed by Nicki Harper