Local production of “The Fantasticks” explores growing pains with humor and song

Cherie Ulmer has loved “The Fantasticks” since she was 18 years old.

To her, it’s a play about learning to come of age despite — or more likely because — of pain and heartache. It’s a message that spoke to her as a young person in 1975, and still resonates today.

Now, she’s the director for a Salem production. It premiered at the Pentacle Theatre on Dec. 1, and will run through Dec. 17.

On the surface, the musical is a love story.

“It’s very much that,” Ulmer said. “It’s also a story about life. And about growing up, and the kinds of things that we experience that cause us to grow and become wise, deep. So it’s based on a love story, but it’s not only that.”

“The Fantasticks” first debuted in 1960 and its original off-Broadway production ran until 2002, a record-making length. It features music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones.

The play is about two young people in love, ostensibly divided by a feud between their fathers. However, it soon becomes clear that the fathers are faking the feud in order to bring their children together.

In 1975, soon after Ulmer graduated high school, her brother was playing the piano for a Fantasticks production and suggested she participate.

She was cast as The Mute, an ever-present character who hands the actors props and reacts to moments within the play, like a one-person Greek chorus.

“I thought, ‘Wow this play has so much heart. And it is so full of very thoughtful, meaningful things that just come across so simply,’” she said. 

Ulmer’s career in theater would go on to include over 15 seasons working at Salem’s Children’s Educational Theatre.She has directed around a dozen productions at the Pentacle. 

This is her first return to a production of “The Fantasticks” since age 18, though.

When preparing to direct the December shows, she initially wanted to adapt it and incorporate more intricate props and lighting. 

Then, she realized the play’s simplicity is one of its greatest virtues.

“It’s based on an idea — kind of a traveling show — where this troupe of players come in and set up,” she said. The play incorporates long-standing theater genres, such as the Italian commedia dell’arte character ensemble and Japanese theater’s use of fabric props for movement.

“There’s a lot of historical genre in what seems to be a very simple play,” she said. “It touches people very deeply, and some people don’t even know that until later,” long after the final curtain.

The play opened Thursday night after being delayed several days due to a Covid outbreak among the cast and crew. While she wishes the rehearsals hadn’t been interrupted, she said the first night of the show had a lot of beautiful moments.

The Salem production mainly features local talent, but there are a few students from Western Oregon University in Monmouth who are involved.

“The cast was amazing, as I knew they would be, and audiences enjoyed it,” she said.

One character, El Gallo, sings a song with the line “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.” That, to Ulmer, is the essence of the play. 

“I think it is timeless,” she said. “When I experience a hardship and something painful, I learn from it to grow and become wiser. I think that’s true of young people too, today.”

“The Fantasticks” is showing at the Pentacle Theatre, 324 52nd Ave. N.W., through Dec. 17. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. 

Tickets are available online for $30, or half-off for students, frontline healthcare workers and Oregon Trail Card holders.

A dress rehearsal of “The Fantasticks” (Courtesy/ Pentacle Theatre)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.