“The Fantasticks,” Long Wharf Theatre

--Irene Backalenick

Long Wharf is now offering the enduring mini-musical “The Fantasticks,” a show which generations of players have performed off-Broadway since its 1960 debut. Not surprisingly, director Amanda Dehnert is faced with the need to put a new face on the old and familiar. Or at least she sees it as a need. But why not present it once more as the simple beautiful piece it is, its timelessness emphasized by a bare stage and a minimum of props? Isn’t it enough to bring this classic, in its pure form, to a new crop of theatergoers?

But Dehnert has decided to gussy it up, setting the show in an abandoned amusement park (Rocky Point in Rhode Island, to be exact). She turns it into a carnival setting, with a cluttered, confusing set (courtesy of Eugene Lee). The word which comes to mind is “ongepotchket” (a Yiddish term meaning over-decorated in chintzy style).

A pair of itinerant magicians move through the show, performing tricks. What is this about? Apparently the message is that “The Fantasticks” is about pretense, illusion, disillusionment. But does Dehnert need to hammer it home? The message that this “Fantasticks” sends, unfortunately, is that “more is less.”

But somehow, even in this production, the musical has its shining moments. Tom Jones’ book and lyrics and Harvey Schmidt’s music are a source of wonder and delight. Moreover, the cast is competent, though singing voices are unexciting. Perhaps this explains why the best performance, by far, is offered by “the mute”--Jonathan Randell Silver as the non-speaking Harpoesque character. Silver is a strong force, moving through the piece. But others contribute as well. Ray DeMattis and Dan Sharkey, as the fathers, are a delightful song-and-dance team, and Jessica Grove and David Nathan Perlow are appealing ingénues.

Moreover, “The Fantasticks” is a lovely fairy tale--but, like many fairy tales, with a dark side. A boy and girl live side by side, their two houses separated by a wall. Why the wall? Their fathers pretend to be enemies, thus hoping their children will defy them and fall in love. They cook up a scheme wherein the girl is abducted by a character called “El Gallo” and saved by the boy (after a fake sword fight). So it works out, with a “happy-ever-after” ending. But not quite. Act Two brings dissention, boredom, restlessness. The boy goes off for adventure, and the girl falls in love with El Gallo. Ultimately, battered and disillusioned by the outside world, they reconcile and, (you guessed it!) live happily ever after.

Thus the book, music, lyrics have captured audiences down through the decades. And here, even in this production, such tunes as the poignant “Try to Remember,” the yearning “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” and the chilling “Round and Round” strike a chord within us all and save the day for Long Wharf.

This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and on the web site--nytheaterscene.com.

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