The Fantasticks at Long Wharf Theatre
Some shows run for such a long time they deserve to be called “tired.” The Fantasticks is perhaps a stellar exception to the rule. It can still brighten your theater-going day, even after a run of 42 years and well over 17,000 performances to date. It’s the world’s longest running musical.
Of course, the appeal of the show with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt can be enhanced by a well designed production. Audiences will have to judge whether the current revival by New Haven’s leading area theater, Long Wharf, strikes a proper balance between more conventional and novel treatments of the show.
The team that created this version of the musical draws upon a stockpile of newer ideas that make it a virtual trompe d’oeil of special, and often attractive effects. Among these is a theme of magical tricks and show time diversions produced by two of its leading characters. These are El Gallo (played suavely and energetically, if not on the occasionally strutting side, by Michael Sharon) and The Mute (played brilliantly by the fetching—even if forever silent—Jonathan Randell Silver).
It’s a no brainer that director Amanda Dehnert strives to regale her audiences with a dazzling display some might consider piles up unnecessary business atop what ought to be a more modestly appointed show. After all, The Fantasticks explores elemental themes of idealism, and romance (both in its youthful exuberance, and when disillusioned by experience), parental oversight, and a world that bursts with deceptively enticing surprises.
All the same, The Fantasticks is the kind of show that’s been around so long, saddling it with fresh approaches to production values might be deplored when it comes the Jones and Schmidt vehicle. But the issue is not whether a novel approach departs from time-honored conventions, but whether it works on its own terms. (The inevitable reminder to keep in mind is the Shakespearean canon.) In this reviewer’s opinion, the Long Wharf example is a worthwhile excursion into a newer approach to the show, despite its occasional excesses of staging. As an example, young Matt is imprisoned in a box-like contraption, while The Mute thrusts swords into at as a metaphorical assay at punishment. Overkill, on any accounting.
Director Dehnert’s production expands action in several ways. Performers do their thing in a somewhat larger setting than the kind of original mounting at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in New York City. The example set by that past run virtually defined the mold for confinement to a limited stage space in most subsequent productions. At Long Wharf, the action takes place in an amusement park, Rocky Point, while performers have more room to move around an ample circular stage. The magical tricks staged by El Gallo and The Mute were designed by Jim Steinmeyer and Jeff Crow, and enhance the carnival atmosphere. The question is; do they detract unduly from ongoing action? The answer may depend upon one’s standard of production for The Fantasticks.
In the present revival, even stage movement takes on a larger dimension, and performers move more gymnastically than in conventional adaptations of the musical. To meet the demands of modern sensibility, in the sixth and eighth musical numbers of the show, the term “rape” is exchanged for “abduction”—a more politically correct term, to be sure—although the elision had already been incorporated in productions prior to the present one.
The Fantasticks tells the story about how two fathers who pretend to dislike each other contrive to have their son and daughter marry. Except they have to manufacture the enmity between their families. Knowing youngsters the way they do, any other overture would meet with opposition. As Dan Sharkey as father Huckelbee and Ray DeMattis as father Bellomy sing, “Children, I guess must get their own way/The minute that you say no.” So the strategy is to protest the union between Matt (played convincingly by David Nathan Perlow) and Luisa (acted and sung beautifully by Jessica Grové) so that the couple would balk at the faux parental advice.
To bring about the desired scenario, the parents hire El Gallo, an adept at masquerade, swordplay, and prestidigitation, who, with such enfeebled accomplices as Henry (played hilariously by William Parry), an arthritic Shakespearean ham who cannot even remember his most notable lines, and Mortimer (played devilishly by Joseph Tisa), a hireling given to donning Indian head pieces and staging wildly improbable expirations at the hands of Matt.
All goes according to plan, but not without Matt’s experiencing a crueler world than he bargained for after abandoning Luisa. The snit that led to his elopement turns out to be only a momentary glitch in their romance. The lovers are finally united in a renewed pairing embodying a better understanding of the mixed picture of life they have experienced.
Sharon Jenkins’ choreography graced stage movement in musical numbers, while Nancy Schertler’s Lighting Design sharpened ongoing action on stage. Eugene Lee’s Set Design capitalized on multi-levels possibilities for the show, although the stockpiles of carnival detritus off Stage Right and Stage Left seemed on the redundant side. Jessica Ford’s Costume Design was imaginative, right down to El Gallo’s colorful overcoat.
It may be that deep in December it’s nice to remember the fire of September. It’s just as nice to savor much in the current show that runs at Long Wharf in October and November.
The Fantasticks opened at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II at 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, on October 7th and runs until November 1, 2009. Curtain times are Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesdays at 2 and 7 PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM and 8 PM. Tickets are $30 to $70, and may be purchased by calling (203)-787-4282. Website: www.longwharf.org.