PLU's production of the longest-running musical in New York history, The Fantasticks, was not even remotely what I expected. I honestly couldn't really tell you what I expected, except inasmuch as it was "not that."
But let me start elsewhere. I was a student at Pacific Lutheran University. I worked for a time in the Eastvold Theater and scene shop. It was a lot of fun, but the amount of hacked-together tech, mediocre safety procedures and general inconvenience involved in any production made it a chore to really accomplish much.
So upon getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the brand-new studio theater facility, hosting its debut musical, my main thoughts were, "Hoooooly crap they are going to do some cool stuff in here."
Behold an array of state-of-the-art lighting instruments wielding an array of LEDs to make any color your finicky light designer could possibly imagine. Marvel at the brand new digital controls, the programmable light switches that greet you at every doorway. Swoon over the easily accessible catwalks-stairs up instead of ladders. And what's this? A scene shop on the same floor as the loading doors AND the theater itself?
Surely such technology treads close to the realms of science fiction.
(Seriously... the loading bay doors for the old shop were at ground level, and the shop itself was in the basement. Don't ask me who thought that was a good idea.)
More exciting is the prospect that this is the studio theater. The little one. The other half of the building that is becoming the Karen Hille Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the bigger half, containing the primary chapel and main stage, is due for its renovation starting in May 2012. Who knows what miracles will be wrought on that even larger canvas.
All this newfangled technology serves as an invisible backdrop for the remarkably simple and sparse staging that makes up The Fantasticks. The production took me some time to get into, in part because of my vague but persistent expectation of what the show (which I had never seen or listened to previously) would be. But this show grows on you, and by the end I was won over.
Vocal performances are often a highlight at PLU, known for the quality of its choral program. But the real standout of the show is the silent Mute, serving up pre-show antics and various utility roles. Angie Tennant, also the choreographer, picks up on an array of small mannerisms giving her Mute a genuine-feeling vaudevillian demeanor.
Fellow highlights include Frank Roberts as the theatrical death expert Mortimer, and Ali Rose Schultz as a girl absolutely convinced of her destiny as a romantic fairytale lead.
Ultimately, The Fantasticks is a different kind of love story. A fairy tale turned on its ear, self-aware and unconventional. It runs for one more weekend, and if you miss it I guess you'll just have to go see something else there instead, if only to experience the joy of what a $10 million gift can do for a theater program.
[PLU Eastvold Studio Theater, The Fantasticks, through Oct. 23, Friday- Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m., $5 student, $8 general admission, Park Ave S and 123rd St S. ?Tacoma, 253.535.7411]