nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 16, 2005
The Fantasticks—the intimate Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones musical comedy about the callowness of young love and the foolishness of those, of any age, who surrender to it—is back in New York, in Brooklyn this time, at Gallery Players. Just three weeks this time around (last time it stayed for more than 40 years). If you've not seen it, or feel a hankering to revisit it, this production, co-directed by Tina Marie Casamento and Dominic Cuskern, will mostly not let you down. It captures the charm of the piece, and probably most important lets us hear the lovely songs that made this show famous: "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You," "Much More," and the signature tune, "Try to Remember."
Eight actors, constantly poking through the so-called fourth wall to connect with their audience, tell the story of Matt and Luisa, and their journey toward true love. She is 16, naive, spoiled, and hopelessly romantic; he is 20 (and therefore ever so much more worldly than she), naive, earnest, and hopelessly romantic. When he returns home from school, he discovers that his father Hucklebee and her father Bellomy have erected a wall between their adjoining gardens. Over said wall, he discovers his heart's desire, and she, hers.
The fathers confess to us in short order that the wall was a device: they are good friends, not the feuding enemies that they've led their kids to believe, and have always wanted their children to fall in love and wed. The Romeo-and-Juliet idea is simply to speed things up, and it's working. Now they need a decisive final something that will clinch their children's union. Hucklebee has come up with a novel idea—to hire a wandering hero called El Gallo, who also happens to be the play's narrator, to stage a fake "rape" of Luisa. Matt will come to her aid, she and both fathers will be eternally grateful, and happiness will ensue forever after.
Of course, nothing in the world is so simple, and all four characters learn—abetted by El Gallo, his silent assistant (known only as "The Mute"), and a pair of ragtag itinerant actors—that, as the song puts it, "without a hurt, the heart is hollow."
That's pretty much all there is to The Fantasticks, but librettist/lyricist Jones dresses up the slight subject with lots of coy theatricks that were actually quite adventurous and novel in 1960 but seem merely quaint today, and composer Schmidt offers a wealth of simple, pleasing melodies that, even for their familiarity, still have the capacity to melt a heart. The old-fashionedness of the show is occasionally distracting—the emotional baggage that a 2005 audience brings to the word "rape" is sufficiently different from what the authors intended to render one of the big numbers, "It Depends On What You Pay," almost offensive—but mostly it's a sweet nod to a more innocent time, in terms of what audiences expected from storytelling in general and musical theatre in particular.
Casamento and Cuskern provide a staging that's generally a faithful reproduction of the long-running Sullivan Street Playhouse mounting, which is an excellent idea and not as easy as one might think. In places, they seem to forget that less is almost always more here: the Mute seems to be too busy, for one thing, and the opening "overture" sequence feels a little fussy. A few other minor quibbles: pianist David Libby sometimes drowns out the actors' singing, especially Bonnie Fraser (Luisa), whose voice is lovely but a bit thin; the "rain" and "snow" dispensed by the Mute can't be seen clearly by the audience; and Darron Cardosa's Mortimer (the younger of the two traveling actors) is too hip and knowing to fit comfortably in the world of the play.
But Cuskern and Mike Durkin, as Bellomy and Huckabee, respectively, have a fine old time and deliver the vaudevillian goods in "Plant a Radish," the fathers' paean to the dependability of vegetables vis-a-vis children. James Robert Winfield is as appealing a juvenile lead as we might wish for, and Julia Kelly, the first woman I've seen in the role of the Mute, is quite effective. Paul Niebanck's El Gallo isn't as wise as he might be, but he cuts a dashing figure and grounds the play nicely.
So whether The Fantasticks is brand new to you or as familiar and comfy as your favorite sweater, I expect you'll be happy to make or renew your acquaintance with it at Gallery Players.