Cheap and functional

Theatre Three breathes little life into that old stand-by The Fantasticks

Like a remorseless killer in a grade-Z slasher flick, The Fantasticks keeps coming back. You can strafe it, bomb it, drive it over the edge of a cliff, but it will not die.

Since its May 1960 opening, this small, saccharine musical has run through 10,000 off-Broadway performances, and is reputedly the longest-running musical in the world. Theatre Three's current production marks its fifth holiday revival of The Fantasticks, which it bills as "America's favorite musical."

What's the secret of the play's appeal? Philosophers and mystics from many nations have paused to consider this conundrum, but no clear answer has emerged. Those who enjoy The Fantasticks, or say they do, cite the play's whimsy, its poetry, and its songs. Those who fault the play also point to three key elements--its whimsy, its poetry, and its songs.

The real answer, however, may lie in the fact that The Fantasticks is cheap. With its small cast, limited props, and minimalist set, it doesn't cost a whole lot to stage. So if you really want to produce Miss Saigon but can't afford a helicopter, there's always The Fantasticks.

The plot of the play is simplicity itself. A boy and a girl fall in love. Their fathers disapprove of the liaison, but only in order to further pique the couple's interest in one another. The two marry, but must taste the bitterness of the world before they can truly be content together because "without the hurt, the heart is hollow."

All the action takes place on a virtually unadorned stage that designer Harland Wright has shaped into three multi-tiered wooden platforms, one of which is crowned by a kind of ship's crow's nest. Narration and commentary are provided by El Gallo, a mysterious, dashing, sometimes threatening embodiment of life's piquancy, meant to represent Experience itself. A mute in mime's clothing acts as El Gallo's Ariel, helping to effect scene changes and assisting with props.

So far, so good. The problem with the play, however, lies largely in its cloying, hyperpoetic diction. Matt, the male ingŽnue, has some particularly limp-wristed things to say. When his old man suggests he'll find Matt an appropriate bride, Matt asserts he'll only couple with Luisa, the girl next door. There will be "no ears but hers to hear the explosion of my soul," he says, and, "No songs will be sung when we are wed but just September singing in the grass." As for Luisa, he tells her, "You're too vibrant for a name--you're like the inside of a leaf." With lines like these gassing about, one begins to long for more mutes.

While Matt out-Candides Candide, Luisa out-Pollyannas Pollyanna. Luisa spends most of her time rhapsodizing about her budding charms and "memorizing the moon." Ashley Wood as Matt and Pamela Doherty as Luisa do their best to make the couple appealing, and both actors have considerable natural charm. However, despite their best efforts, certain lines in the play seem to astonish even them. At times, expressions that seem to say, "Jeepers, did I really say that?" crosses their faces, exciting the utmost pity for these engaging young board-trotters.

The fathers, played by Theatre Three executive producer-director Jac Adler and Jerry Haynes (TV's "Mr. Peppermint"), are meant to be fussy yet endearing old coots, laudably dedicated to their children's happiness. They spend most of the play dancing and cavorting around like two old vaudevillians, or exchanging barbs with one another when they get into a snit. Unfortunately, their barbs lack bite, and the comedic numbers are generally long on archness and short on wit.

Particularly unsavory to the sensitized ears of today's audience are the words to "Rape Ballet," a song in which the fathers and El Gallo enumerate the various ways Luisa can be raped. They, of course, mean rape in the classical sense of abduction, but the word rape is so charged with ugly images these days that the song is unsettling rather than merely silly as intended.

At this point, the play calls out for some real comic relief, and along comes Jerry Vandivort to supply it. Vandivort plays Henry, a superannuated Shakespearean actor enlisted by El Gallo to aid in Luisa's abduction. With his reedy legs and palsied languor, Henry already appears to have one foot in the grave, though he gamely clings to the belief that he is a bravura actor. Vandivort has Henry down pat, and he milks as much humor from the part as he can. Unfortunately, the script is not as funny as the actor reciting it, and much of Vandivort's catty delivery and deft comic timing are wasted.

It is El Gallo who provides the centrifugal force meant to hold the play together. He sets the mood of sentimental longing with "Try to Remember," the show's opening tune and signature number, and orchestrates the action throughout. El Gallo needs to be a character of considerable power, sex appeal, ambiguity, and charm. The part calls for an actor in that attractive, 40-ish period of a man's life when he combines both the strength of relative youth with the perspective of worldly experience. Mark Mullino is a bit young for the role and lacks the necessary grace and sinuousness to completely carry it off. He seems more like the boy next door than a roguish charmer with a mysterious past.

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