It was the little show that could, and apparently it still can. Timeless, ageless, and apparently dauntless, The Fantasticks has been revived with plenty of heart at the new Snapple Theater Center. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's paean to young love debuted Off Broadway in 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse; when it finally closed in 2002, it had played over 17,000 performances, spawned some 11,000 productions in the United States and 700 productions worldwide, and was the longest-running theatrical production ever. But why does a story about the flutters and foibles of young love still capture our hearts? Why pay to see a production whose special effects include colorful confetti and a cardboard moon when, across the street, you can see monkeys swinging from the eaves in Wicked? And, above all, why revive this musical less than five years after it ended its epic run?
Somehow, it is still impossible to fight the magic that is The Fantasticks, starting with "Try to Remember," the opening ballad that quickly became a standard. The song is an invitation to a simpler, more innocent moment and mind-set, and during the performance on the five-year anniversary of 9/11, it resonated with chilling poignancy. As El Gallo (Burke Moses), villain and narrator, gently began to sing, stillness embraced the audience:
Try to remember the kind of September When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
The song coaxes us toward faith and innocence, which the audience collectively struggled to summon despite the reality of what September has come to mean.
Perhaps the greatest lesson taught by The Fantasticks is that although your moon may be made of cardboard, what counts is how much you believe in it. Jones's book and lyrics put forth a rather generic tale: a boy, Matt (Santino Fontana), and a girl, Luisa (Sara Jean Ford), fall in love while separated by the wall built by their quibbling fathers to keep them apart. But in a classic example of parental reverse psychology, the fathers actually want their children to marry, and they concoct an elaborate scheme, complete with the abduction of Luisa by the enigmatic El Gallo, to convince their children that their romantic attraction is real. But can romance survive when flattering moonlight gives way to invasive sunshine and thorny flaws?
Jones has directed this revival based on Word Baker's original staging, and, under the stage name of Thomas Bruce, he also jumps back into a role he originated back in 1960: Henry, The Old Actor. Jones certainly makes an older Old Actor than he once did, and his gentleness, joy, and sincerity make him a lovable and endearing mascot of the show he shepherded to life. When Henry steps out of a trunk with his sidekick, Mortimer (the delightfully rubber-faced Robert R. Oliver), they aid El Gallo in the staged abduction of Luisa.
Henry's shock and delight that El Gallo remembers one of his obscure previous performances underscores the deification of theater and its legacy. "Try to see me under light," Henry charges us, for he is convinced that under stage lights, anything and everything is possible.
Jones's uncomplicated staging gently enhances the story: The Mute (Douglas Ullman Jr.) serves as stagehand, doling out costumes from a multipurpose trunk; glitter doubles as rain; a dowel held horizontally creates the wall. Ed Wittstein's costumes contribute splashes of vitality, especially the lively mismatching of the two fathers, who wear a complementary collision of plaid, stripes, suspenders, and hats. Wittstein's spare set takes best possible advantage of the disappointingly low clearance of the Snapple Theater's space; as the latest in corporate-funded venues, it is functional but hardly alluring. El Gallo even takes a jab at the low ceiling when he attempts to tip his hat and realizes he's boxed in by his surroundings.
Fontana and Ford are appealingly fresh-faced and vibrant; Fontana uses his wide-eyed grin and warm voice to great success, and Ford gives Luisa a refreshing mix of sarcasm and wit, allowing us to see the woman lurking beneath her girlish surface. Moses is a commanding El Gallo, sinuous and seductive as required, and his thunderous voice is the perfect vehicle for Schmidt's sometimes operatic score.
Only the fathers, Bellomy (Martin Vidnovic) and Hucklebee (Leo Burmester), are slightly disappointing. Burdened with some of the more dated and clunky material, they are never as endearing as they might be as they sing, dance, and spar over horticulture. Dorothy Martin and Erin Hill contribute prodigious and playful support on the piano and harp, respectively.
At the abrupt ending, the players draw their own curtain, and when the curtain closes, it seems too soon. As Jones and Schmidt prophesized, this is a story that never really ends, and they leave audiences wanting more. If we can never return to the September they once envisioned, at least we can return to The Fantasticks, where they do their best to create it for us, again and again.