Review: "The Fantasticks" Retains Its Power to Enchant

Eloise Baxter-Moss

  • OnStage North Carolina Critic

The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway in 1960 and ran for a whopping 42 years, becoming the longest running musical in history.  It’s authors, Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) would go on to write many shows including the Broadway success, I Do! I Do! starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston, but none would have the enduring life of The Fantasticks.  The venerable musical recently received a loving revival by Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts Cube Theatre in Wilmington, NC.

Loosely based upon the play Les Romanesques by Edmond Rosand (Cyrano de Bergerac), the musical is an allegory concerning two neighboring fathers who conspire to get their children to fall in love.  Employing the ruse of a feud between them, they have built a wall between their properties to keep their offspring separated.  Their shared philosophy of parenting is summed up in “Never Say No.”

“…children, I guess, must get their own way
The minute that you say no.”

Of course what the dads don’t realize is that the kids are already in love, and that their reverse psychology machinations will back fire and ultimately result in the estrangement of the would-be lovers.  After their respective adventures out in the big, bad ol’ real world, the earnest Matt and yearning Louisa come to the realization that they were meant for each other all along.  Happy ending.

The story is narrated by the mysterious balladeer and bandit, El Gallo, the role that launched Jerry Orbach’s career.  When Matt’s father proposes an abduction of Louisa from which Matt can heroically rescue her and thereby prove his love, El Gallo is hired for the job.  He explains the options he can offer in the comic song “It Depends On What You Pay.”  The original lyrics referred to the kidnapping as a “rape” but as that word became largely objectionable through the years, lyricist Jones wrote alternative lyrics for the song and it is those revised lyrics that are employed for this production.

Director Shane Fernando has assembled a terrific cast lead by Khawon Porter’s engagingly illicit El Gallo.  His full-throated, thoughtful rendition of the musical’s signature song, “Try to Remember,” is a highlight and gets the show off on just the right foot.  Mr. Porter displays solid stage presence and authority throughout.  The characters of the young lovers could easily tip into dippy, shallow caricatures but Mr. Fernando wisely keeps them on the road to sincerity without sacrificing the innocent humor of the musical.  Courtney Poland is a lovely Louisa, her crystalline soprano embracing the youthful longing of “Much More” and beautifully showcased on her duets with Greg Beddingfield’s endearing, sweet-voiced Matt.  “Metaphor,” which in other hands could become a goopy, ridiculous paean to being in love with the idea of being in love, here becomes a heartfelt, urgent and optimistic anthem.  “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and the gossamer “They Were You” are moving in their simplicity, Ms. Poland and Mr. Beddingfield bringing gentle gravitas to bear.

As the well-meaning fathers, Jonathan Wallin and Michael Lauricell are a comic delight, by turns blustering and paternally caring.  Their rendition of “Plant a Radish,” contrasting the vagaries of raising children with the certainties of gardening, is staged, as is traditional, with a nod to vaudeville, and the appropriately hammy duo make it land.  Both have terrific voices and their harmonies are air-tight.

To assist with the abduction of Louisa, El Gallo enlists the assistance of two traveling players: an old Shakespearean actor, Henry, who has seen better days (Wilmington theater stalwart Tony Rivenbark) and his sidekick, Mortimer (Eddie Waters) who, for reasons unexplained, is clad as a Native American.  Yes, the comic relief has arrived and the actors more than live up to the task.  Mr. Rivenbark is an expert clown, making hay of his every moment onstage.  His butchering of the Bard’s language is downright hilarious.  Mr. Waters, much younger than is customary for the character, keeps up without pushing too hard to put over his, relatively, understated and guileless performance.  Jordan Spillers is sweetly and unobtrusively effective as The Mute, portraying the wall dividing Louisa and Matt with nothing more than a wooden dowel and being silently deployed to assist with the highly theatrical storytelling throughout.

Mr. Fernando has staged the production beautifully, very much in line with the original direction by Word Baker, and why not?  If it ain’t broke, why fix it?  His staging of “I Can See It,” where Matt envisions journeying from his puritanical town, is especially inspired, ably assisted by Mr. Spillers and a couple of wooden cubes.  Music director, Chiaki Ito, wisely chose to use the original instrumentation which is written for only piano and harp.  With Ms. Ito on piano and Christina Brier on harp, the enchanting score is as sensitively served as one could wish.  The glorious “Overture” is a musical highlight, as it always is when well executed.  It actually isn’t a traditional overture at all, which is usually a medley of melodies you’ll hear within the course of the show.  It’s a stand-alone composition that exuberantly establishes the energetic tone of whimsy and romance to follow.  

Tech credits are modestly spot on all around.  Gary Ralph Smith’s classy, colorful side-show evoking set takes maximum advantage of the intimate venue; Isabel Zermani has costumed the production with a fine eye to character and atmosphere; and Cole Marquis’ lighting bathes it all in warmth and occasional wonder, as during the darkly chaotic “Round and Round.”  Blessedly there is no amplified sound, the cast handily delivering the score acoustically with accomplished clarity.

Does the musical, and this production, trade in a bit more treacle than necessary?  Perhaps.  Is it a bit twee and sentimental?  Probably.  Are the characters and performances sometimes too arch to earn our full engagement?  Admittedly.  Still, I found myself brushing away tears thanks to the sheer beauty of the score and the theatrical sophistication of its presentation.  For those who may wonder why this warhorse is so frequently produced 56 years after its premiere, take in a production the next time it’s presented in your neighborhood.  And it will be.