Long Wharf Infuses Fantasticks with ‘Real’ Magic

By Amy J. Barry

There are lots of opinions about Long Wharf Theatre’s revamped version of The Fantasticks and whether or not it’s OK to have strayed from the simple, no frills classic that opened in 1960—the longest running off-Broadway musical, with book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt.
Director Amanda Dehnert and set designer Eugene Lee chose to set the play in a colorful and cluttered abandoned New England amusement park—specifically Rocky Point in Rhode Island, although it could easily be Savin Rock here in West Haven—and include some “real” magic by adding illusionist to the resume of El Gallo, the narrator/bandit (played by Michael Sharon) and “His Assistant” to the role of The Mute (played by Jonathan Randell Silver).
In the recent past, Long Wharf has gone the other direction with musical productions, paring down the Broadway staging quite severely, as in 2007’s Man of La Mancha and 2008’s Carousel.
Perhaps the Long Wharf creative team figured if they were going to stage a musical that’s been produced so exhaustively for so many years, they were compelled to give it a new spin.
I do not have an issue with Long Wharf’s embellishment of the musical. I don’t think this artistic license overwhelms or detracts from the storyline of the memory play, which maintains a dark edge and still requires audiences to exercise their imaginations.
Most importantly, the acting is strong overall and the lyrical score is delivered with heart, enhanced by enchanting accompaniment by Bill Corcoran on piano and Colleen Potter on harp, who, in a nice touch, performs onstage in a gazebo in the defunct amusement park.
The book, based on the 19th-century French play Les Romanesques (The Romancers) by Edmond Rostand is a humorous twist on Romeo and Juliet in which two neighboring fathers (Ray DeMattis as Bellomy and Dan Sharkey as Hucklebee) erect a wall between their houses using reverse psychology to get their son (David Nathan Perlow as Matt) and daughter (Jessica Grové as Luisa) to fall in love, because they know kids will rebel and do whatever their parents forbid.
After the plan pans out and Matt and Luisa do fall in love, they discover their fathers' plot and now feeling like rebels without causes, each goes off on some eye-opening real life adventures, ultimately returning to one another for a happily-ever-after ending.
Sharon gives a polished performance as the multi-faceted, tall and mysterious Gallo, initially clad in a gorgeous jacket along the lines of Joseph and the Amazing Color Dreamcoat by costume designer Jessica Ford.  He sings, “Try to Remember,”the musical’s lovely signature song with soul. Silver as his sidekick is charming and whimsical as the Harpo-esque character, performing delightful magic tricks and holding up the wall between the lovers.
Speaking of lovers, Grove is adorable and appropriately kooky as young Luisa and has a powerful pair of lungs. Perlow is appealing as the nerdy grounded Matt, who quickly turns worldly and their voices are a good compliment in the lovely duets, “Soon it’s Gonna Rain” in Act I and the romantic, “They Were You” at the end of Act II.
DeMattis—a Hamden native, who got his start at Long Wharf 42 years ago—and Sharkey are terrific as the devious dads and get the audience going in the clever numbers, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish.”
The final pair in the eight-character cast—William Parry as Henry and Joseph Tisa as Mortimer—are a barrelful of laughs as the eccentric aging Shakespearean actors.
Although there aren’t any traditional dance numbers, there is a lot of physical comedy and marvelous body language in this production and Sharon Jenkins deserves mention for her creative and energetic choreography.
Whether or not you think the magic is necessary, The Fantasticks is a magical evening of theater at Long Wharf.
Performances of The Fantasticks continue through Nov. 1 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. For tickets and info, call 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org <http://www.longwharf.org> .
This review is appearing in Oct. 28 Shore Publishing Weeklies Living sections.

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