“The Fantasticks” -- Less Than Magical

by David A. Rosenberg

There’s magic all right in Long Wharf’s production of “The Fantasticks,” courtesy of two traveling illusionists. But the evening is far from magical. In an  effort to impart something new to the Tom Jones – Harvey Schmidt blockbuster (the world’s longest-running musical played a record-breaking 42 years off-Broadway), director Amanda Dehnert has so gussied it up that she loses the show’s blithe and simple charms. Only in the staging of “They Were You” (the penultimate number) is the show lovely, subtle and heartfelt.

This is a moon/sun show. That is, act one is all moonlight and romance, filled with joy, comic gusto, optimism and make-believe danger. Act two is all sunlight and realism, filled with pain, disillusionment and actual peril.

The bridge between the halves is the character of El Gallo who’s hired to stage a mock fight with the hero in part one. In part two, as he and the heroine take a shine to each other, he reveals to her a world that is truly frightening, one that becomes bearable only if seen through a mask.

That idea is botched here for two reasons. One, while the magic that El Gallo and his sidekick skillfully conjure ranges from card to fire tricks, it becomes obsessive, show-offy, existing for itself. When swords are pushed through a box in which the hero has been locked, for instance, there are not one or two or five swords but what seems like a dozen, so many that they’re still being inserted long after we (and the hero, presumably) get the point.

Even more, El Gallo is performed without any danger and with little charisma by Michael Sharon. Tall and good-looking, he would seem an ideal choice for the mysterious stranger who seduces one and all. But Sharon is under the radar, a figure who may physically be a ten, but is emotionally a zero.

Fortunately, the show is so strong, so universal in its feelings, that it would take an atomic bomb to kill it. Its music, lyrics and book rank among the theater’s most distinguished and beloved works. Although there’s no song list in the program, its tunes are familiar. “Try to Remember,” Plant a Radish,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and others are immediately recognizable.

The story, based upon Edmond Rostand’s 1864 “Les Romanesques” is about two fathers who, wanting their children, Matt and Luisa, to fall in love and marry, pretend to want just the opposite. By building a wall between their houses, they test the theory that if you tell a child not to do something, that’s what they’ll do (“Children, I guess, must get their own way / The minute that you say no”).

They hire El Gallo to stage a fake rape (really an abduction, but the non-p.c. “rape” is changed here, infelicitously, to “raid”). Matt “wins,” leading to a happy ending for act one. Things turn darker in act two, but the initial idea of letting the audience use its imagination, already truncated in this heavy-handed production, is here abandoned altogether. Do we need yards of tulle wrapping around characters to show how trapped they are? Do we need all the clutter of Eugene Lee’s set, which places the action in Rhode Island’s defunct Rocky Point amusement park?

The performers show signs that could almost make up for the evening’s deficiencies. Jessica Grové and David Nathan Perlow are delightfully fresh and naïve. Their sitting quietly together to sing “They Were You” is the evening’s highlight. Ray DeMattis and Dan Sharkey are genial fathers, while William Parry and Joseph Tisa are amusingly hammy actors.

But it’s Jonathan Randell Silver as the Mute who, as a combination of Harpo Marx and Gene Wilder, most impresses. Impish, imaginative, sweet-faced and lively, he embodies what the show is meant to be, but what, at Long Wharf, it isn’t.

 

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