ALAMEDA -- A staple of theater companies and colleges around the country, "The Fantasticks" has played in theaters of all sizes and shapes. It is one of the longest-running shows of all time, with approximately 250 new productions each year -- some good and some not-so-good. Fortunately for Bay Area audiences, a thoroughly entertaining, well-conceived production is taking place at Alameda's intimate Altarena Playhouse.

The Altarena's in-the-round staging allows the audience to experience the full impact of Tom Jones' script and lyrics as well as Harvey Schmidt's melodic music as the story of two young lovers and their meddling fathers unfolds. Act I is all drama and romance, while Act II brings the harsh reality of daylight to the tale.

Under Stuart Lyle's astute direction, this seemingly light-hearted musical reveals a too-seldom-seen depth. Lyle, who also directed the Altarena's "Moonlight and Magnolias" and "Man of LaMancha," among others, has reimagined the story, creating a fast-paced show that features the Mute character more prominently. Wonderfully performed by Lindsay Rousseau, this Mute has attitude to spare and becomes an integral part of the action whether arranging the other characters and props or adding percussion and wind instruments to action.

Lyle's casting is key to the success of this show, with LaMont Ridgell a charismatic El Gallo and Scott Alexander Ayres and Christopher Ciabattoni easily portraying the well-meaning fathers. Adding their own special brand of physical comedy are Charles Evans and Bruce Kaplan as the "players" Henry and Mortimer.


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But Lyle's casting of the young lovers, Luisa and Matt, really makes this particular production special. He managed to find two teens who carry off their demanding roles with panache. Seventeen-year-old Nikita Burshteyn and San Ramon High School senior Katie Robbins exude stage presence and maturity well-beyond their years -- not to mention impressive acting chops and vocals, especially Robbins, who had no trouble hitting the impossibly high notes required of Luisa.

Costumer Sydney Michaels adds to the pleasing production with colorful costumes that do double duty as clever prop holders while Kim Saunders choreography refreshes and energizes the show. Music director and pianist Armando Fox and harpist Helene Langlamet utilize their considerable talents to bring Schmidt's music to life from the lyrical "Try to Remember" to the bluesy "I Can See It."

IF YOU GO
WHAT: "The Fantasticks"
WHERE: Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda
WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 4
TICKETS: Call 510-523-1553 or go to www.altarena.org.