Two girls, no more than ten years old, sat in front of us on Sunday night in the Lincoln Theatre’s cozy refurbished seats. At another production, they might have faded from focus, but at The Fantasticks, I couldn’t help but watch with their ears and see with their eyes. Arena Stage’s vibrant reimagining of this much-adored little romance offers a beautiful mix of laughter, song, and dazzling visuals. It also welcomes, with admirable restraint, a chance to bridge generations and rekindle those tingly feelings of childhood romance.
Eisenhower was President when The Fantasticks first shimmered to life, but young Matt (Timothy Ware) and Luisa (Addi McDaniel) are in perpetual awakening. As the show begins, a tall wall through the backyard separates the fresh-faced little heroes, and they are ordered by their fathers not to breach the divide. So Matt and Luisa are left with only their imaginations.
But when did that ever trump the powers of love? The young’uns exchange glimpses and mementos over the top of the wall until, finally, their fathers Hucklebee and Bellamy (Michael Stone Forrest and Jerome Lucas Harmann – a wonderfully zippy duo) come out with the truth: Luisa and Matt’s union is, in fact, what the dads always wanted after all. Well, that worked out nicely. Hugs! Kisses! Wedding tableau!
The miracle of The Fantasticks, when done well, is how the lightheaded plot and simplistic characters manage to steer clear of saccharine excess. The show stayed afloat for a mind-boggling 42-year run at the tiny, improbable Sullivan Street Playhouse in New York, thanks to a limited budget and an avant-garde sensibility. The art-on-a-shoestring ethos meant that the actors performed on a minimalist set (a platform, a bed sheet, and not a whole lot more) and embraced irreverent little theater tricks to tug at the audience’s imagination. It was a smash-hit micromusical, a frolicsome fusion of low and high art that played with a wink and a grin.
Tom Jones’s comic libretto and Harvey Schmidt’s light, bubbly score – played at the Lincoln by an expanded orchestra of four, to great effect – are the rich soil and water in which this play blossoms. Matt, who previously hid himself away in science projects (dissecting violets, no less), opts out for a chance with the mystery girl. “I defy biology and achieve ignorance!” he beams. Luisa, meanwhile, is a starry-eyed dreamer who feels herself growing too great for a life of routine. “I’d like to be not evil, but a little worldly wise,” she sings. “To be the kind of girl designed to be kissed upon the eyes.”
The title of that song, “Much More,” is an apt summary of director Amanda Dehnert’s amplified vision for this production, set in an abandoned amusement park in Rocky Point, Rhode Island (Dehnert and choreographer Sharon Jenkins both come from many years of work with Trinity Rep in Providence). Dehnert recently described the park as “an idea of a place that was once simple and innocent,” and the specificity of the environment makes for a welcome rejuvenation of this well-worn plot. We might admit, too, some amusing symmetry in setting the world’s smallest hit musical in America’s smallest state.
It’s at the gates of Rocky Point that the mysterious host El Gallo (Sebastian La Cause) spins the story straight out of the dusty air with a flick of his wrist and a few famous melodies (“Try To Remember”). His scampering assistant, The Mute (Nate Dendy) is always at hand to set an illusion in motion and to propel a scene forward with acrobatic flair (case in point: he plays the wall). In addition, the aged actor Henry (Laurence O’Dwyer) and his squirrelly comrade Mortimer (Jesse Terrill) comprise a little lost tribe of players, who help throw a well-intentioned wrench into the giddy adventure that is Matt and Luisa’s courtship.
Dendy is marvelously precise in the silent role, and his affronted demeanor brings to mind the melo-tragic capers of Buster Keaton. It is under his care, mainly, that an impressive set of magic tricks begin to erupt at choice moments. Folded paper transforms. Flames rise from fingertips. Out of nowhere: a live dove. These fun tricks capture, in microcosm, this musical’s unique achievement: instant entertainment born from imagination, a simple tool or two, and the sheer will to wring miracles out of seemingly nothing.
Eugene Lee’s expansive, weathered scenic design – exposed light bulbs, torn posters, faded paints – gives off a melancholic air of fading fun. The space is naked with possibility, but it’s also cluttered with scraps of expiring history. So, in a few nice moments, potentially disposable characters like Henry – who’s written as a walking plot twist – inherit a haunted subtext. They’re survivors of a dead culture, namely: the carnival. When Henry wheezes, “There’s not much left of the old company anymore,” we feel his loneliness. Strewn with debris and overhung with strings of bright colored lights, the atmosphere is one of dilapidated optimism – the kind of battered hope you can’t help but root for.
Even given the performers’ enthusiasm and the detailed, compelling design, this Fantasticks doesn’t always ring true like it should. La Cause, although charming, doesn’t tap the magnetism required of the smoldering El Gallo (who soon gets drawn in as Matt’s romantic competitor). The Abduction Ballet, in particular, plays at woozy half-speed when it should crackle with a real sense of danger. McDaniel and Ware, too, have some soul-searching yet to do. They make a cute couple at long-distance, but as the show progresses we don’t observe their hearts beating so much as their minds working through the mechanics of intertwining melodies. They’re great singers, but as of now their shared chemistry is only partially explored. Let’s hope they warm up to each other as the holidays approach.
After the show on Sunday, the two young girls walked ahead of us down U Street, singing bits of song to each other and laughing. They’re the next link in what has become, with The Fantasticks, a very long chain of shared experience. As the decades pass, sons and daughters come back to see it again as fathers and mothers. So bundle up, bring the kids (especially bring the kids), and let young love live again.
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones
Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Hunter Styles