Play: The Fantasticks
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through April 11
Tickets: From $18; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Story: Working by the time-honored tradition that children do exactly the opposite of what their parents instruct, two neighboring fathers build a wall between their houses, ostensibly to keep the one man’s son apart from the other’s daughter. In reality, they do this in the hope that the two young people will find each other and romantically fall in love. To help them in their ruse, they enlist the aid of a mysterious bandit known as El Gallo, who also serves as the story’s narrator. El Gallo, in turn, is joined by a mute assistant and two, past-their-prime actors whose talents barely manage to eclipse their forgetfulness. While the fathers’ hopes and the children’s dreams are idealistic, El Gallo adds doses of reality to his machinations to strengthen the young love through adversity.
Highlights: How do you underscore the enduring popularity of The Fantasticks? Perhaps the fact that, according to Wikipedia, more than 11,000 regional, community and school productions have played in every state and 67 other nations since its unassuming debut Off-Broadway back in 1960, a half-century ago. The original production ran a staggering 17,160 times, ending in that mathematically magical number of 42 years in 2002. A current revival began Off-Broadway in 2006.
The Fantasticks is the quintessential example of how ‘less is more.’ With just a pianist and harpist playing the music of Harvey Schmidt, and a handful of performers essaying the roles in the book and lyrics of Tom Jones on a minimalist set, the two acts of this bright, breezy, frothy and yet profound musical skip by all too quickly, just as life itself. The current presentation at The Rep emphasizes that characteristic.
Other Info: Veteran Rep director Victoria Bussert, whose previous efforts here include [title of show] and Kiss Me, Kate, has an easy and ingratiating style that benefits from a tight and tidy work such as The Fantasticks. Her careful guidance allows the performers to casually inhabit their roles and move the story forward gracefully.
Brian Sutherland anchors the proceedings as a pensive, somber and somewhat dark El Gallo, who provides the ‘tough love’ that the dads are too reluctant to truly administer. Sutherland looks the part of the dashing brigand and displays a notable ability in swordplay to boot. His singing is sufficient if not superior, as he handles the show’s signature tone, Try to Remember, more with his acting than his voice.
Stella Heath and Cory Michael Smith provide fine efforts as the young lovers, especially fetching on the ballads Soon It’s Gonna Rain and They Were You. Dan Sharkey and Scott Schafer essay the parts of the boy’s and girl’s fathers, respectively, offering comic moments in their bits of both contrived and curious pique, while Sara M. Bruner displays fine physical comedy as the mirthful, ubiquitous Mute.
The production’s chief treasure of humor, though, belongs to Joneal Joplin and John Woodson as the addled Henry and his faithful if meandering comrade, Mortimer. Joplin does heroically amusing battle with a wayward lighting technician, while Mortimer provides an engaging interpretation of death by boomerang that emphasizes his special talent.
Peter Sargent’s lighting design is a whimsical amalgamation of lamps and lanterns hung throughout the simple but playful set designed by Gary English. True to the show’s original concept, lighting is key in pinpointing time of day or night as well as providing comic focus on the work’s humorous elements or casting shadows on its darker themes. English’s set takes full advantage of a series of poles that anchor a number of platforms, all set atop a floor which provides an astronaut’s view of Earth.
Costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis underscore the Everyman look of the dads and kids as well as the theatrical flair of El Gallo and the two aging actors. Martin Cespedes’ sprightly choreography fits the measured confines of The Rep’s stage, allowing graceful moves by the young lovers or the swashbuckling antics of El Gallo, and pianist David Horstmans’s musical direction provides solid and fully sufficient support throughout, aided by an unnamed harpist. Rusty Wandall’s sound design is complementary of the proceedings on stage.
The Fantasticks is a small show with a universal message that still resonates nicely in this pleasant presentation.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.