The Fantasticks Offers Some Magical Moments

By Geary Danihy

The Fantasticks, the longest running Off-Broadway musical in history, might just as easily have been titled Whimsy, for from start to finish it is determined to be both quaint and fanciful, and in its Long Wharf Theatre revival it mostly succeeds at both, although its many fine parts do not exactly add up to an altogether successful whole.

            The musical, with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, is based on an 1864 play by Edmond Rostand (he of Cyrano de Bergerac fame). It opened at the Sullivan Street Theatre on May 3, 1960, got tepid reviews, struggled to find an audience, and then took off, running for an amazing 17,163 performances before closing in early 2002.

            It is easy to understand the show’s appeal, for its basic story is timeless: a boy, Matt (David Nathan Perlow), meets a girl, Luisa (Jessica Grove); boy loses girl; boy and girl, somewhat mauled by reality, are reunited. Their courting, orchestrated by their ostensibly feuding fathers, Bellomy (Ray DeMattis) and Hucklebee (Dan Sharkey), is brought to fruition by a picaresque character named El Gallo (Michael Sharon) – pronounced “El Guy-O,” if you please -- a world-weary magician and roué with a heart of fool’s gold, and his sidekick, The Mute (Jonathan Randall Silver). The duo is paid by the fathers to put a dramatic spin on things, make Matt a hero in Luisa’s eyes, and allow the faux feud to come to an end.

            The show’s draw, at least in its Off-Broadway form, was also its simplicity. It was basically a medieval morality play, with the actors appearing on stage at the start of the performance to don costumes and then perform. You lard over this simplicity at your peril.
In the Long Wharf version, the musical is set in a shuttered amusement park (think Savin Rock in its waning days). The conceit, and the static set by Eugene Lee that supports it, is not really put to much use and although visually intriguing adds little to the production. In fact, it weighs it down.

 The first act, which opens with El Gallo singing the musical’s signature song, “Try to Remember,” consists of the courting and eventual uniting of the two lovers, culminating in the orchestrated “rape” scene that allows Matt to heroically save his lady fair. To pull off this absurd abduction, El Gallo needs assistance, which he gets in the form of two troupers, Henry (William Parry) and Mortimer (Joseph Tisa).

These roles, especially doddering Henry’s, have been written in show-stealing style, and Parry and Tisa take full advantage of what the script offers them. From the moment they appear from within a trunk (“Born in a trunk” – get it?), they, rather than the set, are the focus of the audience’s attention, providing the controlled silliness and whimsical artifice lacking in some of the other parts of the show. Whether Parry is mangling a Shakespearean soliloquy or Tisa is “dying,” (his specialty), their presence is comically bracing and wonderful, worth the price of admission.

A less aggressive but no less impressive performance is given by Silver as The Mute. With features that evoke both Harpo Marx and Gene Wilder, Silver uses body language and facial expressions -- especially his gentle, enigmatic smile -- to great effect. His performance also adds to the whimsical nature of the show.

In fact, there is nothing really wrong with any of the performances, per se, and most of the numbers – the two fathers in “Plant a Radish” and “Never Say No”; the ensemble in the archly staged “This Plum is Too Ripe”; and the manic “Rape Ballet” – are well conceived. However, Sharon is just a bit too active at times. He seems, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, to be here, there, and everywhere, especially when director Amanda Dehnert has him whirling all over the stage in “I Can See It” – he pauses to pose, then is off again.

The primary problem, other than the lurking set, would seem to be one of chemistry, especially between the two lovers. Alone, they are fine, but when Grove and Perlow come together – as in “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and the climactic “They Were You” – there aren’t many sparks flying or hearts melting. Since the musical is primarily about their love and it’s testing, their lack of shared electricity presents an obvious problem.

All in all, The Fantasticks is pleasing but not, well, fantastic. There are quite a few magical moments – both literal and figurative – but one comes away from the show wanting more. Perhaps if there had been less attention paid to the staging and set and more emphasis on simply allowing the human elements –the  triumphs, foibles, fears and failings – to shine forth in the iconic characters, this production would have been something to remember.

            The Fantasticks runs through Sunday, Nov. 1. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.   

            This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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