An old chestnut takes on a refreshing new flavor
Published: November 30, 2011
Music by Harvey Schmidt, Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones
At The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through Dec. 18
The problem with staging a musical like The Fantasticks is that it’s been done so many times before—over 17,000 times, in fact, just from 1960 to 2002, during the show’s original off-Broadway run. Musical theater runs clean on its own nostalgia, though, and has a fetish for reaffirming its classics with such enthusiasm that if the already scant production of original musicals stopped tomorrow, a decade might pass before anyone noticed. Few shows are allowed to truly expire because so many are considered “timeless.”
All of this means that Spotlighters has a tall order to fill in staging The Fantasticks. The challenge is to make the show somehow responsive to itself—complementing the chocolate-box sentimentality of 1960 with a bit of irony from 2011. It happens that The Fantasticks is a near-perfect show to experiment with in this way, because its narrative already has a certain sly awareness of itself (“Metaphor,” one of the first songs, has our Romeo struggling to avoid cliché in calling out to his love). The show has enough elasticity, in other words, to accommodate the playfulness Spotlighters has brought to it.
Like so many love stories, The Fantasticks centers around two households, both alike in dignity, at each other’s throats. Star-crossed neighbors Matt (Eric Ritter) and Louisa (Sherry Benedek) live on either side of a high wall put up by their feuding fathers, Hucklebee (Amanda Kay Boundy) and Bellomy (Courtney Kalbacker). Quarantined and forbidden from speaking, Matt and Louisa only fall louder and more lyrically in love—which, we learn, was exactly the point all along. Hucklebee and Bellomy are really the best of friends, the bastards; they’ve been practicing a little reverse psychology in the knowledge that parents need only discourage their kids from doing something in order to make them do it. The manipulation gets altogether less wholesome when they hire El Gallo (Bart Debicki), the Zorro-like bandit who is also the narrator, to stage a mock abduction of Louisa so Matt can save the day.
Buckles are swashed, El Gallo throws the fight, and the scheme goes according to plan: The young lovers are joined in a picture of harmony with their psychotic fathers. But happy endings are never that easy, even in musicals. El Gallo asserts some extra-narrative authority by literally flipping the moon, which hangs from a string on stage, making visible the sun that is painted on the other side. He thereby replaces the moon’s romantic beams with the glare of veritas. The characters suddenly see each other in a different light as the second act takes form, and everything starts to look a lot less fantastic.
By this point in the show, a few peculiarities have appeared, including a song-and-dance number about rape. “It Depends on What You Pay” is El Gallo’s sales pitch to Hucklebee and Bellomy, detailing the various kinds of abduction—“rape” in the outmoded sense of the word—available for contract. The song can make for uneasy listening (“You can get the rape emphatic/ You can get the rape polite,” etc.), but Spotlighters has made the right decision in sticking with the original lyrics over the PC revisions made available a few decades ago. Any discomfort we feel with the song has little to do with the show, and Spotlighters’ choice to take the material for what it is indicates a healthy regard for the maturity of the audience. The rest of the songs are less hair-raising, and with Michael Tan’s impressive keyboard accompaniment, the cast polishes old chestnuts like “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” to a shine.
In an unexpected but welcome move, the fathers are played by two young women, who achieve a perfect vaudevillian rapport in their checkered jackets and straw hats. Joey Krastel offers a delightfully schizophrenic performance as the pair of hammy thespians enlisted by El Gallo: Henry, the old Shakespearean, and Mortimer, who specializes in death scenes. Krastel may misplace his accents now and then, but in switching between the two roles he invests an already entertaining dynamic with spontaneity and genuine cleverness. This production also embraces the play-within-a-play motif, sprinkling the show with little intrusions and winking asides from the cast that contribute nicely to the show’s themes of illusion and disillusion.
A theater-in-the-round like Spotlighters works only as well as the actors allow it to work, and for the most part this cast exercises the space with enough vigor to keep our attention through the show’s intermittently boring second act. Plenty happens: Matt and Louisa start to grate on each other, the dads’ deception is revealed, the kids run off to do some soul-searching. But as the plot chugs to the end we can see from the beginning, we rely on the charms of the actors to keep us engaged, rather than the story.
As much as an audience is owed anything from a new production of an old show, its owed some freshness and sincerity. Spotlighters’ take on The Fantasticks has both, and its energetic young cast is blind neither to the musical’s age nor its opportunities for a little mischief. They’ve seized on the spirit of the show, coming dangerously close to demonstrating that some musicals really can be timeless.
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