The Fantasticks - Jerry Orbach Theater at the Snapple Theater Center - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Harvey Schmidt, Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, With the original Direction by Word Baker
The Fantasticks - Soulpepper at Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Harvey Schmidt, Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Directed by Joseph Ziegler
So I finally got the chance to see The Fantasicks on Broadway (and it really is now on the actual Broadway street, after having re-opened 6 years ago after a 4 year break from where it originally ran for over 40 years) and now I'm not sure why I waited so long. And within a week, I checked out the new production of The Fantasticks at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, and while each production had its own minor flaws, the delight in watching the earnest spirit of the musical has made me fall in love with this little musical that could.
For those of you, who like me, have never seen the world's longest running musical (and there seemed to be a few fellow theatre blogger friends there who all somehow haven't either), the simple musical is essentially about a boy and a girl who fall in love. It takes place back in a time that seems more pure, more simplistic, more earnest, but there's a cleverness to the story that takes the whole-goodness for a detour. Much of the show borrows elements from more classic tales, including a mix of Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer's Night's Dream and the original New York production is famous for its simplistic presentation that is supposedly inspired by Our Town (with its minimal set).
The Fantasticks on Broadway, with its original direction still in tact, is still presented with a simplicity that reinforces what the music asks us to do right off the bat in the first song. "Try to Remember" directs us to look back on simpler times, as El Gallo (above, a charismatic Edward Watts, Finian's Rainbow), our Spaniard narrator, starts to explain the pieces of the show to us. With a Mute (an enchanting Matt Dengler, A Little Night Music) acting as sort of the magician's assistant/stagehand/the wall.
The beauty of the old fashioned songs is both in the mix of sweetness and their intrinsic humour of the boy and girl's naiveté. Throw along the boy and girl's pseudo-feuding fathers, and their secret attempt to arrange the marriage, and there's a loveliness that you either accept whole-heartedly, or groan as your eyes roll back.
With Matt Leisy as the boy Matt, and Juliette Trafton as the girl Luisa, it's easy to enter into their easy romance, with both imbuing an easy youthful innocence that makes it easy to believe their gullibility in the charade the fathers (the terrific odd-couple duo of Gene Jones and Bill Bateman) and El Gallo throws upon them.
Trafton's voice has a girlishness that is pure, if not sometimes too clear, but it's Leisy's smooth and solid voice that gives his Matt the texture that enrichens his "perfect boy-next-door" character into something deeper (particularly required in Act 2).
Without giving too much away, while Act 1 brings us something so lovely and romantic, Act 2 throws things for a loop as an alter-reality sets in with some of the darker shades of the world. But with the magical motif in the direction, and clever staging, the show remains as whimsical and romantically dreamlike throughout.
The sole moments that throw things off are the awkward scenes where El Gallo calls up two "actors" Henry and Mortimer (MacIntyre Dixon and Michael Nostrand) and their clownish routine wears thin fast, and seems incongruous to the rest of the show.
Over in Toronto, Soulpepper's production stars its Artistic Director Albert Schultz as El Gallo, and one of my favorite young and up and coming actors, Jeff Lillico as the boy Matt, along with his Salt Water Moon co-star Krystin Pellerin as the girl Luisa.
While Lillico and Pellerin have great voices, they don't quite measure up to Leisy and Trafton, and the Canadian counterparts exude charm and loveliness but don't quite have the fresh youthfulness.
Joseph Ziegler's wood motif that seems to colour the production in a nostagic hue is also wonderfully simple in a different way. The magic motif is gone, but the romantic whimsy remains (although with a few less missed punchlines). Where Ziegler gets it completely right though is with the two "actors" Henry and Mortimer. Oliver Dennis' Henry and Michael Simpson's Mortimer hits the right tone to match the show, while making their clownish antics into absolute hilarity, particularly Dennis who approaches Henry with the belief that Henry believes he is a serious thespian (which makes all of his lines all the funnier).
Michael Hanrahan and William Webster work well together as the fake-feuding fathers, and both have strong voices and great comic timing that doesn't defy the innocent tone.
Both the long-running New York production and the limited-run Toronto production are enchanting in similar ways, though each seem to excel in what the other seems to be missing. But the flaws are just minor and can be overlooked in the haze of romantic delight that The Fantasticks produces.
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com
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