A True Blockbuster

The Fantasticks lives up to its name at the Morrison Town Hall.

A product of its time that proved powerful enough to transcend the tumult of ensuing decades, The Fantasticks opened at New York's Sullivan Street Playhouse on May 3, 1960, and has been running there ever since. Although its universal appeal is unparalleled in musical theater history, some critics continue to dismiss Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's two-act confection as "uninspired."

One of the reasons might be that the legendary musical has rarely been described, as today's gargantuan song spiels routinely are, as a blockbuster. The story, based on Edmond Rostand's play, Les Romanesques, is too uncluttered, the music and lyrics too poignant and poetic, and the message too simple to qualify the piece as a magnet for hype. As the Morrison Theatre Company's beguiling revival demonstrates, the show's perceived shortcomings are its greatest strengths.

True, a couple of slapstick routines drag on the evening's otherwise steady momentum, and a few flat, oversung notes surface here and there -- effects that could be mitigated by picking up the pace and following the old adage: Less is more. For the most part, however, director Gary Dean Hathaway and company capture the play's essence with remarkable skill and simplicity -- as waves of silence and laughter rippling through the cozy (and, at a recent performance, sold-out) theater frequently attest.

David Sauvage and Pete Nelson in The Fantasticks.
David Sauvage and Pete Nelson in The Fantasticks.

In fine ensemble tradition, no single performer stands head and shoulders above the rest, yet all lend distinctive, memorable touches to their portrayals. (They're backed by the excellent onstage duo of pianist Mary Gottlieb and harpist Maria O'Bryan.) As El Gallo, the dashing narrator/swashbuckler, David Ambroson delivers a full-voiced portrait that's laced with equal parts self-deprecating humor and pathos. His command of the show's most difficult number, about "a pretty little rape" (a song that's augmented by the director's explanatory program note about the lyrics' origin), helps to make a potentially offensive number into something of a metaphor.

Possessed of a voice that's as expressive as it is ringing, Joseph Michael Donohoe is both vulnerable and fiery as the callow youth, Matt, who learns several tough lessons about love. As his romantic partner, Luisa, Evergreen High School senior Betsy Taylor enchants, even as her silvery voice sometimes thins out in its upper registers; with a little time, this naturally gifted performer is certain to develop into as mature a vocalist as she already is an actress. Character actors David Sauvage and Pete Nelson delight as the pair of meddling fathers. On the strength of their crisp, vaudeville-style delivery, such gems as "Plant a Radish" and a ditty about using reverse psychology on children are two of the show's highlights. Rick Bernstein and Walter L. Newton make a couple of humorous appearances as an aging actor and his even hammier sidekick. Their "duel" with Matt near the end of Act One rollicks with unforced hilarity (when his rented weapon goes awry, Matt's sissified "I'm sorry!" nearly brings down the house). And Kelly Kates plays the part of the Mute with admirable restraint and elegance.

Best of all, the well-conceived, two-hour-plus production bears not a trace of uninspired, or even humdrum, feeling. Only the most stoic individual could maintain a stony countenance as El Gallo begins the play with its signature song, "Try To Remember," or when Matt and Luisa attest to their undying affection during "You Are Love" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain." And only the most analytical soul could keep the faucets turned off when the pair of young lovers, driven apart by their own pride and willfulness, reunite near play's end with the eloquent "They Were You."

All of which proves that The Fantasticks is more than just sentimental fluff. With any luck, the enduring show will play off-Broadway for at least another forty years.

 
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