Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2007
I cannot recall how many times I have seen The Fantasticks – once in summer stock when I was very young, at least once at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, and, memorably, once in Phippy Kaye’s living room when a group of 4th grade girls I was teaching decided to stage it after seeing it on Sullivan Street and being smitten. It is that kind of show. People see it, or hear the score, and are smitten and remain so for life.
So I think that is it quite telling that the gentleman who accompanied me to see the Oldcastle production, who had never seen the show before, was not smitten at all. It left him absolutely cold, and puzzled that this should be “America’s most beloved musical” and the world’s longest-running musical. (The original production clocked in 42 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village before closing in 2002.)
The story, based loosely on Edmond Rostand's 1894 comedy Les Romanesques, and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, involves a young man and young woman who have grown up next door to each other and been cleverly manipulated into an arranged romance by their fathers, who have faked a feud and erected a wall between the two properties in order to convince the youngsters they want nothing more than to keep them apart. By the end of Act I, with the help of the bandit El Gallo and two decrepit actors, the fathers have their way and there is a happy ending. Then comes Act II...
The Fantasticks is a tiny little show, but like many tiny little things, it is much stronger than it looks – how else would it have persisted through five decades and enumerable cast changes in New York? Here director Eric Peterson and director/choreographer Terrie M. Robinson seem to have carefully wrapped their production in so much protective cotton gauze that everything is muted. The wonderful music glides by but nothing seems to happen on the stage.
Part of this muffled effect was the very soft singing voices of all the performers with the exception of Richard Howe’s El Gallo. Before the curtain rose I had delivered my standard GailSez Lecture on the Evils of Body Mikes (Especially in an Intimate Theatre Space Like This) to my companion but I almost immediately regretted my stern words when Megan Grocutt (Luisa) launched into her first number. She was hitting all the right notes, but so very delicately that – had I note known the lyrics – I would have been completely at lost. Body mikes would have been over-kill, but maybe area mikes? Or a Mama Rose to storm down the aisle and bellow “Sing out, Luisa!”
The petite and pretty Grocutt, with her cascading brunette curls, and handsome young Dennis Clark as her beloved Matt looked just perfect, but Grocutt in particular brought very little energy to her role. Clark seemed to be trying harder and to better effect.
But why were Philip A. Lance and J. C. Hoyt equally volume-less as the fathers? There are not two funnier songs in the whole world than “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish” and yet both fell flat. Again, the actors looked the parts and were affable and on key, but their energy level was curiously low.
Maybe this is because Peterson and Robinson have everyone sitting down so much of the time. Why? There are only seven people in the cast and plenty of room for considerably more cavorting than is evident here.
I always get fed up with Mortimer and Henry (the Old Indian and the Old Actor respectively). I think The Fantasticks could have survived for 40+ years just as easily without them, but that is not my decision to make. There they are and here they are played credibly by Mark Vaughn and Tim Foley. I could have done without the bad bald pate on Foley, but it did succeed in aging him.
Howe is perhaps a bit too well aged in real life to play El Gallo, but I liked his rendition. It was a safe and not particularly lusty one, but Howe seemed to be having fun and I appreciated his strong singing voice. The facial hair went a long way towards making him look like a Bandito.
Chris Restino does an excellent job as The Mute. It is not easy being the silent prop for the whole cast, and Restino handled the job with effortless panache. He was there when you needed him to be there and vanished like smoke into the background when no longer needed. What an excellent trick!
William John Aupperlee has done a fine job recreating the original/traditional look and feel of The Fantasticks. I heard people in the audience I attended with saying that the show “Hadn’t changed a bit” by which they meant that this was a credible restaging of the Sullivan Street production – right down to the colored confetti. Patti Brundage’s costumes contribute to the stark, black-and-white color palate, and Michael Giannetti’s lighting was effective and unobtrusive.
If you are among the seriously smitten and are worrying what this “newly revised script” that Oldcastle is touting is all about, rest assured that your favorite show has not been massively rewritten. There may be other more subtle changes of which I was unaware, but the major change is not to the script but to the lyrics of El Gallo’s Act I number It Depends on What You Pay. The word “rape” has all but been expunged, which I think is a good thing. I can only imagine the pain that hearing that word used so cheerfully and repeatedly must have caused to people who have been victims of sexual assault. Oddly, lyricist and librettist Tom Jones used the word in its older sense, meaning to be abducted or carried off, but not to be sexually assaulted, and so the new lyrics are actually more accurate to Jones’ original meaning. The fathers do NOT pay El Gallo and company to rape Luisa in the modern sense of the word, that would be appalling, but to abduct her.
I wish that Musical Director and Keyboardist Sue Maskaleris had encouraged her performers to sing out, and provided them with a slightly quicker tempo on many of the songs. Those two changes would go a long way towards changing this from a languid production to an exciting one. Maskaleris is joined on stage by Mike Chapman on percussion, keyboard and drums and together they form the entire “orchestra” for the show, as is only appropriate for The Fantasticks.
The Fantasticks produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through July 29 at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007