By Frances Baum Nicholson
“The Fantasticks” holds a special place in the heart of the American theatrical community. Its Off-Broadway production is not only the longest-running musical in New York history (1960-2002 without a stop, and then revived in a different theater in 2006 and still going), it is apparently the longest-running musical in the world. Small (eight performers and an orchestra of two or three), graced with a timeless story, a minimalist and therefore somewhat ageless production standard, and songs and characters which hum in the brain, it has become a staple of small theaters across the country. Still, it does not sell itself. Its performers need to be up to the material in a very specific way, as there is no spectacle — no elaborate production — to hide behind. A new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse fiddles a bit with the standard, but that generally works to good effect. The trick is to innovate without interrupting the intimacy or the charm, something the co-directors James Fowler and Barbara Schofield achieve, though there were a couple of changes which mystified.
The tale is actually quite simple. A young girl and the slightly older boy next door fall in love despite family efforts to keep them apart. What they don’t realize is that this has been maneuvered by their fathers, who, though they present themselves as enemies, are actually good friends. To bring this to final fruit, the fathers hire a romantic-looking man and his cohorts to stage an abduction of the girl, allowing the boy to be a hero and dissolve the supposed feud. All goes according to plan until the kids find out they’ve been manipulated. Will their love survive the dashing of their romanticism?
This production makes El Gallo, the romantic man, no longer a sort of Zorro figure, but a slick cool cat in a shiny suit and an open silk shirt. Michael Anthony looks the part of a jazz man, and brings a slightly different flare to the character who both guides the audience, and takes the young people through the rough shock of growth.
Kelsey Hainlen and Daniel Bellusci are the young lovers. Hainlen sings with accuracy and authority — key elements to the part — and a just slightly overbright sparkle which fits the part. Bellusci radiates innocent wonder, and with the exception of a few close-harmony slips toward the start, sings with conviction as well. They play their parts without irony — absolutely essential if this is to work.
John Szura and Peter Miller have a lovely time as the supposedly warring fathers. A startlingly, delightfully understated Barry Schwam has quite a time with The Old Actor, hired by El Gallo to help with the abduction, and Barry Saltzman is the best Mortimer (The Man Who Dies) I have seen in some time: funny and dramatic without beating his schtick to death. Helen Frederick rounds out the cast as The Mute, who creates imaginary scenery and assists in the tale-telling. At its best, Fowler and Schofield’s vision brings a fresh spirit to this piece. The usual “plane platform with posts” set has been augmented with the vague outline of trees — still minimalist, but with the aura of a setting. The only awkwardness comes toward the start, when several characters are required, not only to mount the platform at center stage, but then to climb further onto various boxes or chairs, get down, get up again, get down again, etc., all in rather quick succession. It’s distracting, and winds the performers at crucial moments. Yet, once the story settles in, that issue is gone.
My only other issue, and it is simple curiosity, has me question the dropping a very funny and effective line about a slop pot. Also, and far more understandably, the show uses the authors’ own 1990 optional replacement lyrics to “The Rape Ballet” (though, in the original, El Gallo goes to pains to explain he uses the term in its original Latin meaning: abduction) which make it “The Abduction” instead — their acknowledgement of a change in cultural sensibilities which made the original uncomfortable.
In short, with the exception of all that climbing up and down at the start, this production moves well and has the charm and mild magic “The Fantasticks” always brings with it. And who couldn’t afford to learn, in the end, that “we all must die a bit before we grow again.” It is, after all, the almost simplistic profundity of this show which has kept people coming back to see it, wherever it is playing, for over 50 years.
You can read more of Frances Baum Nicholson’s reviews at her blog: stagestruckreview.com