When Brooks Atkinson reviewed the musical The Fantasticks for the New York Times on May 4, 1960 after seeing its Sullivan Street Playhouse opening, he seemed lukewarm on the play. He liked the first act, but observed that the second act loses "the skimming touch of the first." He goes on to say that: "Perhaps The Fantasticks is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures."
While theater critics are supposed to call it as they see it, the masses were not in agreement with Atkinson. The Fantasticks’ magic caught on quickly and it has certainly endured, earning its place in theater history as the world’s longest running musical. It closed in New York for only four years after a run of 42 years, but was revived in 2006, where it continues a successful run today in Times Square.
There really is something magical about The Fantasticks; its simple story and fresh innocence makes it perfect summer fare. Palm Beach Dramaworks provides all the right elements for the audience to be taken on a journey of the story of a teenage girl, a bit of a dreamer, and her starry-eyed neighbor next door. They are separated by a wall that their conniving fathers have constructed as a plot to get them to fall in love by keeping them apart. The overarching plot concerns manipulation and trust, innocence lost and the dangers of day dreaming. There are complications aplenty, as you can well imagination.
Then there is the play itself, which overtly gives nods to classic theater: the Greeks, Shakespeare and Commedia dell’Arte. The musical is based on Edmond Rostand’s 1864 French play, Les Romanesques, which also borrowed many conventions from a variety of periods in theatrical history. Theater buffs will find these references clever, while those with less knowledge will simply delight in the play's construction.
There are so many perfections in the Palm Beach Dramaworks' production, but perhaps where it shines the most is under the direction of J. Barry Lewis and the musical direction of Craig D. Ames. The pair shows mastery here of what resounds as a complete understanding of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical. There are so many beautiful nuances that are crafted into this play and those that mount productions (you can imagine that there have been many, from community to high school theater productions, over the years) without taking these into consideration end up with something far less satisfying.
The stage setting, sparse and simple, invites the idea of a traveling theater troupe taking up residence and presenting their quaint story out of a trunk – greasepaint and imagination are the only tools required. Musical accompaniment is just a piano (Ames whose piano playing is so flawless) and a harp (a light, heavenly touch by Kay Kemper). The story opens with the narrator, El Gallo (Jim Ballard), and his assistant, The Mute (Cliff Burgess), as they set the stage for the story of young Luisa and Matt, and their manipulative fathers, Bellomy and Hucklebee.
Every actor proves that they are just as invested in the Dramaworks production as the directors. Ballard is dashing as the sinister El Gallo and recalls Robert Goulet’s famous portrayal of The Bandit. Ballard, with his deep baritone, sets the tone off the top with his beautiful interpretation of what has become The Fantasticks most recognizable song, "Try to Remember."
He has a difficult sell, however, but sell it he does, with one of the show's most problematic songs and one that has found numerous detractors (myself among them) through the years. As The Bandit finagles the fathers into paying him to stage the abduction of Luisa in order to have Matt rescue her in the number "It Depends on What You Pay," he gives a rundown of the different abduction plans he can carry out. The song offers more than a few options: a comic rape, a gothic rape, a schoolboy rape with little mandolins and perhaps a cape, and rape with Indians (that's doubly offensive).
Rape is an odd word in this comic musical about two young lovers. Even Mr. Jones has had his own call to consciousness over the years, and for the current New York revival has rewritten the song to replace the word "rape" with "abduction." In a professional capacity, I will leave my personal wincing at the stage door and acknowledge Dramaworks' choice to preserve and keep the original intact.
The wonderful chemistry between the ensemble is a pleasure to watch especially between Barry J. Tarralo and Cliff Goulet as The Fathers. They come off as the best of bar buddies and their duets are some of the show's highlights. Dennis Creaghan as the dusty (literally) old theater salt named Henry and Tangi Colombel as his sidekick, Mortimer, provide some clownish comic relief and are definite crowd pleasers. Colombel performs one of the hammiest death scenes ever seen on a local stage.
As the young lovers, Jennifer Molly Bell as Luisa and Jacob Heimer as Matt are a joy. Heimer excels in going from love-struck boy-next-door in the first act to a world-torn wayfarer in the second act. Burgess as The Mute never says a word throughout the two hour play, but offers some of the most expressive dialogue through his actions and mere presence.
Brian O'Keefe's detailed costumes, from Bellomy's spats to Luisa's ingénue dresses, add to the lilt of the production as does John Hall's mood-setting lighting design.
Palm Beach Dramaworks' presentation of The Fantasticks is theater art at its best, and a summer production that's as picture perfect as a starry, starry night.
The Fantasticks runs through Aug. 5 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. 561-514-4042. www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
photos by Alicia Donelan