by DICK KEREKES
A new dinner theatre has opened in Jacksonville and is presenting The Fantasticks through March 29th. The Gathering Place Dinner Theatre is located in the Mandarin area at 11570 San Jose Blvd, in the Mandarin Square shopping center just north of Loretto Road.
Selecting The Fantasticks to open the theatre was probably a good idea. The longest running musical in history is popular, has a small cast as musicals go, a simple and minimalist set, and can be performed by a single pianist and a drummer. The costumes requirements are minimal as well: a couple of top hats, an Indian head dress, and a cape.
The space is in a two story shopping center, on the ground floor and you feel as though you are walking into a night club when you walk in. There are tables for two and four, which can be put together for larger crowds. It offers a modified buffet, with two or three entrees, salad, and vegetable selections. Servers dish out the food but can go back for more. The menu will vary from show to show, but you will probably find beef, chicken, turkey or fish or a combination of them on any given night. I had the prime rib which was quite good. A dessert is brought out at intermission and I understand is usually some kind of cake or pie. Coffee, tea or cola are included, and frequently refilled by the attentive wait staff. No beer or wine is sold.
Richard Dickson is Director/Musical Director and plays the keyboard for this show. Dickson’s resume in musical theatre and the arts could fill this page. He and I go back a long way as well. I covered the Richard Dickson Dinner Theatre in Gainesville back in the l98Os. Dickson was also Musical Director for Cross and Sword in St. Augustine.
Bryce Perry and his wife Tammy are the owners and producers of The Gathering Place, and moved to this area from Winnipeg Canada. Mrs. Perry is the choreographer for this show and has extensive experience in the field of dance. Mr. Perry’s mission is to present good family entertainment.
I consider myself somewhat of an expert on The Fantasticks having been in two productions as Mortimer, the Indian. I have also reviewed it a number of times all over the e State of Florida. I think you are going to like this production at The Gathering Place.
I won’t go into the plot other than to say it is a musical fable, of young lovers, the fathers and a mysterious showman. The Gathering’s playbill gives an excellent synopsis you can quickly read before the show.
Bill Di Standisloa is making is Jacksonville debut as Bellomy, one of the fathers. He did a number of musicals in California before moving to this area several years ago. He matches up well, with the other Father, Huckabee, played by Mark Snitzer who is another Fantasticks veteran. We were in the l981 Theatre Jacksonville production together and I saw Mark again in an Orange Park Community Theatre presentation several years ago. Snitzer loves the role of Hucklebee as is evidence in his enthusiasm on stage and in his duets with Bellomy.
Local musical theatre favorite Juan Unzueta plays Matt, the son. I have also seen him play the El Gallo role, and I have no doubt he will be playing one of the father’s one of these years. Unzueta has a marvelous voice. He is the kind of singer that can sing a song you think you don’t like but you will like it, listening to him. He has such control and range in his vocal talents and is a very charismatic actor in every role.
Kendra Helton is also new to Jacksonville, and boy are we lucky she married someone from Jacksonville and moved here from New York. She too has an absolutely marvelous voice and is picture perfect for the role and has excellent stage presence. Cute as a button and she is a dead ringer for a very young Sally Field (one of my favorite actresses). You are going to fall in love with her, I guarantee.
What makes this production very interesting is the casting of the role of El Gallo, the mystery showman who arranges abductions and gives advice. It is the first time I have ever seen anyone playing this role that looks the same age as the daughter Luisa. I have see Sam Willis in several shows in good supporting roles but I never realized he could sing this well and he certainly does justice to the most popular song in the show, “Try To Remember”. He is really quite charming as El Gallo, looking like a young Hollywood pop star. Take your teenage daughters to see this show, if they don’t swoon over Unzueta, then Willis will have them fainting!!
Rounding out the cast are the comic roles of the old actor Henry played with sufficient bravado and bluster by Glen Lawrence, another newcomer to the area with vast experience in stage and film. David Jon Davis is Mortimer, Henry’s cockney side kick. Mr. Davis could have used a little war paint to enhance his Indian image (he only used a head dress) and I would suggest an old pair of long johns for his leg wear rather than khaki Bermuda shorts.
I consider Mandarin a bedroom community, densely populated with people who go home on Friday and don’t want to go downtown again till Monday. Community theatre thrived for many years in the cultural center in the former Harriet Beecher Stowe home on Mandarin Road. The only reason the productions ceased is because the movers and shakers who kept it going were all volunteers and either burned out or moved away. Is there a market for live theatre in this area? I think so, even in these times, people still like indulge themselves in good theatre and to eat out, and a dinner theatre can offer both.
I recommend this show, even if you have seen The Fantasticks before. The talent is good, the show is a proven hit and an all time favorite, so what more could you ask for.
by DICK KEREKES