Hailed as the world’s longest running musical, The Fantasticks opened Off-Broadway on May 3, 1960 and closed after 17,162 performances on January 14, 2002. Despite having been a musical theater buff, I did not see one of those performances. Sure, I knew the popular songs, but “Try to Remember” was one of those hits that I associated with my parents’ generation and I certainly was not interested in an intimate boy-meets-girl love story, especially when there were other big-budget splashy New York musicals to see.
When given the opportunity to review The Fantasticks at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, I certainly did not know what to expect. I anticipated a quaint, quiet musical with a simple story. What I saw was an entertaining and thought-provoking show with surprisingly dark elements and a varied musical score.
The Fantasticks is based on the 1864 French play, Les Romanesques, and uses classical theater styles including those of the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Commedia dell’Arte. The narrator, El Gallo, and his assistant, The Mute, set the stage for the story of young Louisa and Matt, whose romance is spurred on by the manipulation of their conniving fathers. Using reverse psychology, Matt and Louisa’s fathers, Bellomy and Hucklebee, build a wall between their homes, forbidding Louisa and Matt to see each other.
Once they are convinced that Louisa and Matt are in love, the fathers go even further to contrive a reason for breaking down the wall, by hiring actors to abduct Louisa and allow Matt to come her rescue. This disturbing plan sounds ominous, but is actually played for laughs, with the addition of Henry, an ancient, over-the-top Shakespearean actor, and Mortimer, an actor whose specialty is dying. All goes according to plan, and by the close of Act One, the wall is down and Louisa and Matt are married.
The second half of the show delves under the sugarcoated love story, and opens with the young lovers' disillusionment. Matt learns about the fathers’ deception, and leaves Louisa to explore the world. Louisa first goes through a period of despair, and then moves on to her own exploration accompanied by her abductor, El Gallo. Both young people find despair out in the world – Matt is a victim of the world’s adversities, to which Louisa turns a blind eye thanks to the mask of illusion that El Gallo insists she wears. When the two lovers meet at the end they are both older and wiser, and realize that what they really needed was each other. Now we are set for the real happy ending.
What makes this production stand out is the ingenious vision of its director, Amanda Denhert. She places the action in an abandoned amusement park, brilliantly designed by Eugene Lee. El Gallo and The Mute act as the emcee and his assistant as they unfold the story for the audience. It is the perfect quaint setting for the first act. The show opens with magic tricks admirably performed by El Gallo and The Mute, and the audience is made to feel nostalgic for simpler times gone by with the opening number, “Try to Remember.” The magic continues throughout the show, always reminding us that it’s all illusion and fantasy. By the second half of the show, the illusion is dispelled and the fantasy fades. The set takes on a nightmarish quality and feels more like an evil carnival as we watch the travails of Matt and Louisa out in the world.
Miss Denhert’s direction and the Sharon Jenkins' choreography also add to the quality of the production. The Mute’s portrayal of the wall between the constantly moving Matt and Louisa in the first act is extremely funny. Bellomy and Hucklebee also do an entertaining soft-shoe dance, and the opening number in the second act has Matt, Louisa, and their fathers performing an intricate dance within the confines of a wedding veil.
Of course it’s the actors who bring the dances and the director's vision to life. The cast of Long Wharf’s production superbly fills their roles. Michael Sharon’s El Gallo is the perfect man of mystery, charismatically drawing Louisa and the audience in with his worldly manners edged with just the right touch of the sinister. Mr. Sharon has the pivotal song of the evening, “Try to Remember,” and he nails it, more than living up to the memory of Jerry Orbach’s rendition of the classic.
Jessica Grové and David Nathan Perlow play the young lovers. Ms. Grové is perfect as the young ingénue and Mr. Perlow is totally believable as the bookish, untried Matt who awkwardly and poetically sings his love for Louisa, and as the world-weary traveler who returns at the end of the play. They seem well matched in their duets, as do the two actors playing their fathers, Ray DeMattis and Dan Sharkey. Mr. DeMattis and Mr. Sharkey complement each other both in stature and in the characterizations of this gardening duo of concerned parents.
Jonathan Randell Silver, as The Mute, is more than reminiscent of a young Harpo Marx, and shines in his role, weaving comedy and magic throughout the show seamlessly. Finally, William Perry and Joseph Tisa round out the cast with superb comedic performances of the aged and pathetically pompous actor, Henry, and the not so bright Mortimer. Mr. Perry delivers some of the funniest lines of the evening, quoting and misquoting everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim.
All in all, Long Wharf’s The Fantasticks is an enjoyable production. If you like your musicals all sweetness and light, the first act of the play is for you. But if you like your musicals with a touch of reality, you’ll enjoy the second act as well – for it is here where the characters grow and learn that you have to have a little bit of hard knocks in order to appreciate the sweeter things in life. It is after this bittersweet lesson that we are once again directed by El Gallo to try to remember a simpler time of innocence. You may not like the ending but it is necessary. To take a page from Henry and steal from Mr. Sondheim, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not?”
The Fantasticks runs through November 1st at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. For tickets call 203-787-4282 or visit their website.