Review | ‘The Fantasticks’ flips romantic comedy on its head

On Friday, Feb. 10, Willow Creek Theatre Company presented ‘The Fantasticks,’ the world’s longest-running musical, entertaining audiences with a fun and fresh spin on classic romantic comedy.


Avi Lapchick

Actors Bryan Lawler (left) and Marty Reichert (right) perform “Never Say No” in the opening night of The Fantasticks at Willow Creek Theater in Iowa City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

The small theater on Gilbert Street echoed with laughter on Feb. 10 as audiences settled in for a romantic comedy of epic proportions in the Willow Creek Theatre Company’s presentation of “The Fantasticks.”

The production is the world’s longest-running musical, having held 17,162 performances over 42 years. It closed its off-Broadway run in 2002 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village.

The musical focuses on two fathers who pretend to feud to set up their children Luisa and Matt. When the plan appears to be successful, the families must navigate their real feelings toward one another.

The musical began by introducing the characters, each of whom filled analogical roles typical of romantic comedies. Luisa, played by Katelyn Halverson, is a 16-year-old girl filled with romantic notions of love and the world around her. All she wants is a fairytale life and a happy ending.

The Boy, Matt, played by Rishi Wagle, is a young man curious about the world who seeks adventure. He lives in the house next to Luisa’s, and the pair fall in love over the wall built between their homes.

The Girl’s Father and the Boy’s Father, Hucklebee and Bellomy — played by Marty Reichert and Bryan Lawler, respectively — wanted their children to marry so they could become in-laws and tear down the wall between them to join gardens.

Hucklebee and Bellomy knew that their children would never fall in love without drama, intrigue, and disobedience. So, the fathers pretended to feud so their children would fall in love as an act of rebellion.

They enlisted the help of the bandit El Gallo and his accomplices — the Actor named Henry and The Man Who Dies named Mortimer — to stage an abduction of Luisa. Matt would then save her, ending the fake feud between the families once and for all.

Henry, played by actor and musical director Josh Sazon, and Mortimer, played by Josh Crawford, were a hilarious duo that had the audience doubling over with laughter.

Spinning a playfully satirical twist on a romantic comedy, the show defies the expectations of a happy ending and introduces an innocent love story to brutal reality. It is an uplifting story about the rediscovery of love despite worldly pains and temptations and the resilience of hopeful wonder.

The size of the space facilitated an intimate relationship between the audience and the actors on stage. Oftentimes, the audience became a part of the production themselves.

El Gallo, played by Rich LeMay, acted as the audience’s narrator by informing them of how time passes throughout the show and by guiding them through the events of the play.

Meanwhile, The Mute Woman, played by Melanie Chervek, spent most of her time onstage as a hovering presence engaging with the other characters in essential yet subtle ways. She provided props for certain scenes and aided El Gallo in his abduction mission. Without dialogue, her expressive choreography spoke volumes.

Equally impressive was the music of the show. The songs sprinkled throughout the two acts were often joyful and humorous, while others evoked a sense of deep reflection and nostalgia.

One song in particular, “Round and Round,” remarked on the chaos of the world and how easily it can blind people to significant issues in society.

Though every singing actor showcased vocal talent, Halverson and Wagle especially shined. Their voices blended in superb harmonies, balancing Wagle’s lower tones with Halverson’s soprano. Luisa was a character insistent on being a princess, and Halverson certainly allowed her to sound like one.

The soundtrack of the show emphasized the musical’s whimsicality by punctuating scenes with funny trills and other sound effects. It helped create an atmosphere of light-hearted romance and comedy.

With a satisfying conclusion that will give you warm fuzzies, “The Fantasticks” was a vibrant and happy escape that left audiences smiling from ear to ear.