By Jan Mercker

Just over a year ago, the Pickwick Players were gearing up for a gangbusters production of “The Sound of Music” with a cast of 80. COVID, of course, put those plans on hold. But the beloved Loudoun-based company returns to the stage this month with a new show: the classic 1960 musical “The Fantasticks.”

With its relatively tiny cast and minimalist set, “The Fantasticks” is the perfect show for a post-shutdown return to the stage, a chance to highlight some of the troupe’s best voices with a favorite production on a smaller scale, said director Michele Reynolds.

“We gave up being a big draw and were eager to do something to still be relevant,” Reynolds said.

The production, which runs April 23 and 24 at Franklin Park Arts Center, tells the story of two neighboring families who trick their children into falling in love by faking a feud. Scheming parents and a puppet-master narrator take the young couple, Matt and Luisa, on a roller coaster ride of life lessons that leads to a temporary separation. In the end, the lovers come back together with more wisdom and maturity.

Although the cast is small, directors and actors still have to get creative. Performers wear clear masks, and the actors must stay 10 feet apart on the stage, which can be challenging when staging an intimate musical.

“This is a love story, so the audience is just going to have to know this is a COVID show,” Reynolds said. 

In the past, community theaters have often opted for bigger shows. Large casts usually mean better box office figures, as friends and family turn out for shows. But with limited seating, a small cast works well, Reynolds said. Franklin Park currently is limiting audiences to 50 people.

And as a director, Reynolds was ready to do whatever it took to reignite the community theater spirit.

“It comes down to people, it really does,” Reynolds said. “The thing I find the most joy from, like any team effort—you start with this seed and you watch it grow and develop. As a director, I come in with a kind of a skeleton, and the actors flesh it out and create this glorious thing.”

Even more than most, this show has been a collaborative effort, she says. She doesn’t have a musical director or costume manager. Instead, Reynolds and cast members are taking on multiple roles to streamline the process.

“It’s a real community spirit in ways that you experience in other places during COVID,” she said.

Reynolds is determined to put on “The Sound of Music” for the company’s next show, and most of the show’s cast members from 2020 are ready to go whenever new guidelines allow. 

That sense of community is also bringing joy to for Bill Kirkendale, a veteran actor on Loudoun’s community theater scene, who plays the story’s narrator known as El Gallo. 

“The big thing I missed is the camaraderie,” Kirkendale said. “You build this kind of family along the way.”

Kirkendale has played Alfred P. Doolittle in Pickwick’s “My Fair Lady,” Adolpho in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and gardener Ben Weatherstaff in the musical version of “The Secret Garden.” Cast as the loveable Max Detweiler in Pickwick’s “Sound of Music” and is ready to jump into that role when the time comes. 

The Fantasticks cast has mostly rehearsed over Zoom so far but has moved to in-person rehearsals this week.

“We’ve had to improvise in many ways,” Kirkendale said. But the great songs and performances are still there. Kirkendale’s baritone kicks off “The Fantasticks” with the beloved song “Try to Remember.”

“Pickwick is known for really good music direction…Great harmonies and great voices,” Kirkendale said, adding that he’s been especially impressed by the young performers in Pickwick’s version.

Pickwick Players actor Chelsea Zeidman, portraying Luisa in their newest performance “The Fantasticks,” holds hands with her character’s love interest, Matt, portrayed by Spencer Milligan, with Bill Kirkendale, portraying the narrator named El Gallo, between them. Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now

While the original off-Broadway production focused on scheming by Luisa and Matt’s fathers, Reynolds cast the troublesome parents to mothers, a change frequently made in community theater, where women actors are in greater supply than men. In addition to Kirkendale as El Gallo, the show stars real-life mother and daughter Kimberly Zeidman and Chelsea Zeidman as Luisa and her mother, Spencer Milligan as Matt and Donna Russell as his mother. 

And while Reynolds still has her eyes on a future “The Sound of Music,” in grand Pickwick style, “The Fantasticks” with its themes of life lessons and personal growth, just might resonate with audiences who have lived through a year of ups and downs during the pandemic. Matt and Luisa start out as idealists, she notes, but then “they see the real world and come back to a new normal that’s somewhere in between.”

And Kirkendale sees a possible parallel in one of El Gallo’s noteworthy lines from the show:

“Who understands why spring is born/Out of winter’s laboring pain/Or why we all must die a bit/Before we grow again.”

The Pickwick Players’ production of “The Fantasticks” takes place Friday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 24 at 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Franklin Park Arts Center. Tickets are $22 for adults and $18 for children under 12. Seating is limited and advance purchase is required. For tickets and information, go to thepickwickplayers.com.