Come along and ride on the Fantastick’s voyage

Augusta Opera Executive Director Les Reagan is everywhere. In addition to his duties in the opera offices, Reagan moonlights at the Augusta Players and the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre. Now he’s downsizing for Le Chat Noir’s new production of “The Fantasticks.”

Reagan is reprising the role of Hucklebee, which he first played as a mere high school senior at Rockdale County High School in Conyers. High school musicals being what they are — other than nefarious Disney plots to annoy parents of tweens everywhere — it’s not much to brag about.

But Reagan was among a distinguished class that included songwriter Keith Thomas, who penned such hits as “Baby, Baby” for singer and Augusta native Amy Grant. Reagan played the father of Thomas’ character, Matt Hucklebee, the ingenue Romeo played by Nick Brush who falls in love with heroine Luisa Bellamy, played by Natalie Greenwald. Reagan also knew Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter, star of “The Piano” and “Raising Arizona,” who graduated two years behind him.

“We grew up together. My dad filled her first prescription as a child. It’s hanging on the pharmacy wall,” he said, with an affectionate laugh.

“The Fantasticks” was as appropriate a topic for a high-school-aged Reagan as it is for adults because it deals with the high of first love and the heart-wrenching blow of reality.

“It’s the story of real life and how parents have to let their children lead their own lives, but if children go out into the world with their parents’ teachings and morals they can find true love,” said director Carrie Anderson.

The plot spoofs “Romeo and Juliet,” following the story of two fathers who invent a feud to inspire their children to fall in love. Comedy and tragedy converge in this singular and inimitable production.

“I think that the play is kind of like a microcosm of life,” said Mark Swanson, who plays El Gallo, rogue, narrator and occasional moral voice. “There are times of incredible grief and incredible sorrow, but even in those times of grief there can be injected humor. That’s how a lot of people deal with these horrible situations and make it through.”

The hard lessons each of the characters learn — letting go of grown children, the true nature of adult love — engages even the most reluctant of audience members because it inspires everyone to evaluate their own lives.

“Doing this show made me really kind of look back on things that I’ve accomplished in my life and choices and decisions that I’ve made,” Swanson said. “If I had a chance to do it again, I might undo some of those choices.”

A small cast and spare staging put the actors, story and singing front and center — and that’s the way the authors imagined it.

“They have their death scenes and they actually fall on the feet of the patrons. They want you to play it five feet away from the audience,” Anderson explained. “It is true off-Broadway in its essence.”

It can mean that the energy upon which actors feed could be negated by a single scowl. Try to sing in tune to the guy whose wife dragged him to the theater during NFL playoffs.

“It can be interesting to be up there and not just see the fact that there are people out there, but see eyelashes,” Reagan said.

Michael Hamilton, who plays Luisa’s scheming skinflint father Amos, said that this particular show poses some other challenges.

“We never leave the stage once we come in at the top of the show. There’s no room to hide,” he said. It requires lasting focus and control, a different experience from playing Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast,” where Hamilton had a break from on-stage performance, a giant clock-shaped body to hide any nervous ticks, and elaborate props and scenery to draw attention from any mistakes.

“I try to get inside my character’s head,” he said, considering how his character would feel about the scene rather than focusing on the relative absurdity of musical theater. “People don’t generally walk down the street and burst into song,” he laughed.

But like the contrast between night and day — or drunk and sober — the couple moves from love songs to life lessons. They separate, experiment and suffer. Reality is a hard pill to swallow, especially when their parents have constructed a fantasy as artificial as painted plywood backdrops on a stage. When those sets crumble, Matt and Luisa discover on whose shoulders they can lean.

“In the very end, the most important thing is what you have around you,” Swanson said. “Usually it’s your family and friends.”

The Fantasticks” will play Feb. 2-3, Feb. 8-10 and Feb. 15-17 at 8 p.m. at Le Chat Noir. Tickets are $15. Special Valentine’s Day performance on Feb. 14 includes a romantic table for two, a bottle of wine and a cheese platter. Tickets are $75. Call 706-826-0670 or visit lcnaugusta.com.

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