MAGICAL “FANTASTICKS” AT LONG WHARF
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
“The Fantasticks,” which ran for 42 yrs off-Broadway, is being revived at Long Wharf Theatre to mixed reactions. There may be good reasons for this. Part of the original production’s long success was the charming, child-like simplicity that allowed the audience to use its imagination. Another other factor is fashion -- the taste and time of the period. While the age-old story is about young lovers who undergo obstacles in order to test their true affection for each other, folks are a bit more cynical about the romanticism of everlasting love and “living happily ever after.” We live in a time of insecurity and constant turmoil. Also, we hear that many young folks prefer to live independently now. While every one loves an escape once in a while, it takes a strong, emotional punch to convince people that life can be lived like a fairytale.
At the same time, the older generation may remember a more innocent time period and can relate to “The Fantasticks” more readily. The key to all of this “remembering,” refers to a time of prosperity that has passed away -- while today’s generation can only remember joblessness and several wars without a break. We have the lovely, signature song, “Try to Remember,” by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt but for some, it’s way passed remembering. Finally, living in this computer, instant memory/instant movie age, people with short attention span demand more excitement when they go to the theatre. Instead of “remembering,” they want to be touched by something that’s live and in the moment.
Perhaps enhancing the entertainment factor was on Long Wharf’s director, Amanda Dehnert’s mind, when offering her fresh approach to “The Fantasticks.” While the simple story mainly unfolds in song, her version contains the magic of a three-ring circus, complete with optical illusions, magicians and clowns. You cannot fall asleep. But at the same time, the fireworks display sometimes distracts from the contemplative poetry and whimsy of the piece.
The set is a deteriorating amusement park – which represents the past. Like the junkyard in “Cats,” designer Eugene Lee takes the extreme route by extending the carnival debris onto the side theatre seats – although most of the action takes place center-stage, on and around a carousel platform. In an effort to plan the matchmaking of their offspring, two fathers cultivate their gardens while pretending animosity towards one another. Their reverse philosophy is -- if you say “No!” to something, children will want it more. The children unknowingly follow their parent’s desires only to realize that their love is not enough to sustain them. Meanwhile, the parents have arranged for the relationship to be tested before it becomes truly valid and thus they hire actors to devise a fake abduction and duel scene. The theory is that one must endure hardship in order to appreciate bliss, witness darkness before welcoming the light and participate in fantasy to understand what is real. All three situations are handled pretty well, mostly accompanied by feats of magic, but how one takes to the new staging depends on which generation you belong to. For example, the Chinese torture box scene with its overkill of daggers, evoked fun and laughter for some. For others in the audience, all the magic and hoopla seemed to over ride feelings for the lovers’ plight – one of the main points of the play.
David Perlow and Jessica Grove, as the young couple, sing several lovely duets accompanied by harp and piano. Dan Sharkey and Ray Demattis warmly play the conniving fathers. Michel Sharon is the handsome, strutting “El Gallo,” who is hired by the parents to stage a false rape. William Parry and Joseph Tisa are his bumbling, extremely amusing assistants. And, the mute magician, Jonathan Randell Silver steals the show with his wonderful facial expressions. All in all, depending upon what period of time you wish to remember, it was a very pleasant presentation.
This article appears in “On Connecticut Theatre.”