If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan



New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre has re-invented some classic musicals over the past few seasons dividing audiences and critics alike.  I was actually one of the few critics who cheered their revisionist stagings of “Man of La Mancha” and “Carousel” while the less said about their Vegas-like “Guys and Dolls”, the better.

The theatre is currently offering a new take on “The Fantasticks”, that timeless off-Broadway time capsule written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.  The musical is one of the world’s most popular and has been a staple for regional theatres, high schools and community theatres since its 1960 debut.  Is there anything new to say about “The Fantasticks”?   Director Amanda Dehnert seems to think so.  Whether it all works will, again, be a matter of preference.  My feelings, however, remain decidedly mixed.

For the uninitiated (can there possibly be any?), “The Fantasticks” is the deceptively sweet and enduring tale of a young couple in love, their meddlesome fathers and the clash between idealistic and realistic romance.  Our narrator is El Gallo (Michael Sharon) who, with his mute assistant (Jonathan Randell Silver) spins the tale and sets the plot in motion.  Usually performed on a bare stage with a minimum of props, Long Wharf’s production has been relocated to an abandoned seaside amusement park (a far-too-busy and seedy set from the usually reliable Eugene Lee) where El Gallo and the assistant perform some simple magic tricks during the overture.  The use of magic to enhance the romance is a concept used throughout this new version and, for much of the show, it seems to fit – both inventive and often amusing.

What doesn’t work as well – especially in act two – is when the magic becomes more overt and is soon a distraction from the heartfelt central story of two people who fall in love, separate and find true romance all over again.  There are some lovely scenes, of course, as when “rain” is produced quite magically during the haunting love duet, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” or when the young girl transforms to a more cynical version of the woman she could become.  Still, any production of “The Fantasticks” works better with a lot less fuss.

Mr. Sharon, in the crucial role of El Gallo, cuts a dashing figure on stage but he lacks charm and charisma settling for a more demonic, otherworldly approach.  He also seems a little breathless with the athletic staging of “The Abduction Ballet” (rewritten from the original and politically incorrect “Rape Ballet”) and his harmony with David Nathan Perlow, as the young boy, isn’t melodic.  Mr. Perlow, a perfectly fine singer on his own, also doesn’t seem to mesh well musically with his lady love, played with wide-eyes and a bucket of enthusiasm by Jessica Grove.  The couple aggressively push their portrayals of youthful innocence in the first act, but eventually settle down for a more successful pairing in act two. 

As their fathers, Ray Demattis and Dan Sharkey perform like the old pros they are delighting the audience with two well-staged comical numbers, “Never Say No” and “Plant A Radish” while the musical’s signature song, “Try to Remember”, receives fine treatment by Mr. Sharon.  Mention must also be made of Mr. Silver’s excellent mute (channeling a younger Harpo Marx) and the over-the-top playing of William Parry and Joseph Tisa as a pair of hammy old actors.  Their initial entrance on stage is a singular delight.

Bill Corcoran’s musical direction includes a solid pianist in Bill Corcoran with lyrical harp accompaniment by Colleen Potter.  Jessica Ford’s costumes suit the amusement park concept well especially the colorful rainbow coat provided for El Gallo.  Many in my audience were clearly pleased with this rendering.   But at one point, near the beginning of the story, the father cautions his son about the importance of simplicity.  It is advice the creators of this revival might have considered more carefully.

 “The Fantasticks” continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through November 1st.  For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: wwwlongwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

This review first appeared in the Elm City Newspapers on 10.21.09

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