The Fantasticks, which just opened at the Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond, isn’t quite 50 years old (running over 40 of those years in its original production in New York), yet has been saddled with the odd reputation of being an old chestnut.
This despite its ever youthful air of putting on a show, which also gives it license not to take itself seriously—a virtue which, along with its demonstrable simplicity, makes it stand out in the rather top-heavy, elaborated repertoire of post-war musical comedy.
“A boy, a girl, two fathers and a wall ... anything else we need, we can get out of a box,” announces El Gallo (Paul Macari), the wry, deadpan master of ceremonies and “Professional Abductor” to introduce that simple universality of plot and action, after he sings the show’s most enduring hit, “Try To Remember.”
In fact, the seeming transparency of the play almost hides by indirection the clever synthesis of theatrical and musical elements that composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist-playwright Tom Jones put together. Taking inspiration from the Belle Epoche comedy Les Romanesques by Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac), Jones has made French Romantic irony into instant Americana by staging The Fantasticks in the manner of Our Town’s bare stage, but with the spirit of the very early musical comedies of the ’20s, a tongue-in-cheek ingenuousness that owed much to George M. Cohan’s burlesque melodramas ... a very knowing theatricality.
Schmidt’s score is also various, running the gamut from lush, wistful sentiment (“Try To Remember,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain”), to sprightly comic numbers (“Never Say No,” “It Depends On What You Pay”), upbeat showstoppers (like “I Can See It”), to the bluesy piano figures that mark some of the choruses in the second act. Music Director Pat King presides at the ivories, with Tom Silva on harp and Barbara Kohler, percussion—a bright trio.
The Masquers have cast the eight roles well, with strong singers who can handle the genial, self-joshing humor of types that are sincere, but somehow know they’re more than a little bit absurd—“The Fantasticks” of the title, in the sense of eccentrics, extravagants, or what Sherwood Anderson called his provincial stand-outs, Grotesques.
Introduced by El Gallo, The Girl (whose name we learn is Luisa—played by Bridgett O’Keefe) and The Boy (or Matt, played by Kyle Johnson) have managed to fall in love, despite the wall their feuding fathers have erected to separate their gardens and their offspring.
Does this owe something to the burlesque romance of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? In any case it’s compounded by the comic portrayal of the self-serious craziness of the young people. But the fathers, Bellomy and Hucklebee (Alex Shafer and Keith Jefferds), prove to be in collusion, singing and dancing their philosophy of reverse psychology like an old vaudeville team: “Children, I guess, must get their own way/The minute that you say ‘No!’”
Enter El Gallo to preside over the “delicious, very theatrical ... professional abduction” to give the final nudge to the young lovers, though he cautions the dads that “the proper word is rape, from the Latin; short and business-like”—and they haggle over the “the quality of the rape” in the number, “It Depends On What You Pay.”
The self-serious fun goes up another notch with the arrival of the actors, Henry and Mortimer (Jim Colgan and Masquers Managing Director Robert Love), two old charlatans who owe something to the Duke and the Prince in Huckleberry Finn. Henry recites, running together many an old saw, and Mortimer (a Cockney Indian), dies, hilariously pantomimed by the droll Mr. Love.
The old charlatans sweep the boy off to see the wide world, or to be seen in their Punch and Judy show of its broad deceptiveness, while El Gallo pretends to court The Girl, giving her a panoramic glimpse into that same cruel world, but emphasizing the play and illusion of its appearances.
The ending is, of course, happy, though a little bittersweet as it recedes into the sepia of an ideal past, with The Mute (Betsy Bell Ringer), utility stage assistant and scenic mime, scattering the snowflakes that must follow the kind of September we’ve been exhorted to remember.
The Masquers have struck the right chord, with Marti Baer’s direction of a tight little ensemble, with scenic, lighting and costume design by John Hull, Renee Echavez and Loralee Windsor, respectively, all community players, themselves a community, pooling their talents for the larger community of their enthusiastic audience.