Less than fantastick

Coming in at 10,000-plus performances, The Fantasticks is the Cats of off-Broadway--and the longest-running musical in the world, according to press materials. Much of its legendary charm is due to its lyrical, sometimes melancholy music, from the legendary "Try to Remember" to "Soon It's Gonna Rain."

The work, written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (who met while students at the University of Texas), has become a signature holiday piece for Theatre Three, where familiar faces have mastered the spirited vehicle.

Overall, The Fantasticks is too precious, lilywhite, and dated for my taste, but I have been overruled time and again by a cast of thousands.

The story goes like this: two scheming fathers orchestrate a love affair by building a wall between their yards and forbidding their children to date. Of course their post-pubescent children fall in love and rendezvous secretly over the fence, as their fathers had planned all along. The deception catches up with everyone, however, and their lives unravel for a while before a warm reunion in Act II.

While my reaction to the work as a whole has always been lukewarm, even I have some favorite moments from the play, as well as favorite songs. The Fantasticks has a contagious get-over-yourself, let's-put-on-a-show kind of air. Written in 1960, it is the antithesis of hip while being awfully literary, frequently bringing in the classics in humorous ways. The musical is self-referential and slightly deconstructionist to boot, taking apart and commenting on the musical formula.

The fact that Theatre Three has employed a splendid cast this year also makes the frolicking play an impressive showcase for some local actors. Pamela Doherty, for instance, is a luminescent Luisa. The translucent-skinned, crystalline-voiced redhead could play the quintessential ingenue with her eyes closed. She has that perfect, perky body that delights audiences, though her pink Capezio dress, like most of the costumes, looks as if it is from the original production some 35 years ago.

Theatre Three's executive producer, Jac Alder, who plays Luisa's father, is only slightly upstaged by Jerry Haynes, who plays the quirky father of the boy next door. Once again, Laurence O'Dwyer steals the show as the feeble-bodied and slightly senile Henry, a thespian so old he emerges from a trunk.

It is Henry who helps a hired villain, named El Gallo, stage an epic rape that is set to fail, while clinching the relationship between the girl and boy next door. Some may think I have a boring affliction called P.C. disease, but my biggest problem with The Fantasticks--beyond its syrupy, facile plot--is this pseudo-rape scene. It might have been acceptable in 1960 to write such a scene into a script accompanied by the lyrics, "the kind of rape you get depends on what you pay..." (It's nearly surreal to watch the two fathers dance the grapevine step to this song.) But today, the "rape ballet" isn't at all amusing, at least not to me.

After the aborted assault, replete with swords and a duel, the 16-year-old Luisa falls in love with the stock villain-rapist, so much so that she ties a ribbon around the wrist that he bruised. The rape is tongue-in-cheek, but it is also dated, disconcerting, and arguably irresponsible.

But anyone who wants to travel in time to a simple place with good puns and lovely singing, a clean, crisp production of The Fantasticks awaits you.

An even sweeter and more sensitive seasonal production is being produced at Deep Ellum Opera Theatre. The Gifts of The Magi, a musical adaptation of O. Henry's classic, graces the delightful but still slightly ramshackle theater on Hickory Street. (If they hang one more outdoor extension cord over my head near those heat lamps I'm going to start worrying.)

Producing artistic director Gaitley Mathews and Andi Allen ably portray the young New York honeymooners, aka the Dillinghams, at the center of the tale. Allen, in fact, shines something like a star, exuding a self-assured warmth that reminded me of Kate Nelligan on the stage.

But the classic tale is not a pretty picture till the end. The couple, you may remember, haven't a penny to rub together during the holiday season. The husband frequently barks at his wife (what would now be called verbal abuse), as she tries too hard to be his balm in Gilead. I had forgotten what a downer much of the story is as it explores the degradation of a man without a job. "A man is good for nothing but wasting space when his dream stops burning," Mathews sings. But Jim Dillingham is somewhat of a self-pitying guy, and it's hard for the Mrs. to rouse his inner Christmas child. Fortunately his heart warms as Christmas comes nigh.

The young Michael Waddington narrates the story. The tender-aged actor is something of a local treasure, having previously appeared as Buddy in DEOT's A Christmas Memory, and as Amahl in Amahl and The Night Visitors. The sixth-grader also sings in several choirs. I fear, however, that his sugar-spun soprano voice is hitting the unpredictable strains of adolescence. Oftentimes I couldn't hear his words--they came out a mere whisper. Other times he was fully audible, but his voice seemed alternately tentative and bold. The boy has a riveting stage presence, so it is too bad he cannot always be understood.

Waddington does come into his own with one plaintive, beautiful song in the second act. In "Pockets," we hear the purity and sensual nature of his child voice; it is celestial and bursting with longing at the same time. There is nothing tentative or inexact about his voice when he fully controls it, but it is also the nature of things that his singing will continue to change.

The weakest points of the program are the ensemble performances; the acting is loose and the voices are sometimes flat. The problem may be a lack of rehearsal time--or maybe the group never managed to feel cohesive. In any case, the group gropes are the lowest points of the show with the exception of the song "Greed," a haunting, dissonant, and difficult piece in which Lori Shepard displays her own range and control--in tandem with the others. Anytime Allen and Mathews are on stage alone, they evoke a professional performance, whereas the ensemble work seems amateur in contrast.

Neither The Fantasticks nor The Gifts of the Magi are ideal for young children, who will find the plays long and complicated, even downbeat. If you're looking for an age-appropriate show, you might be better sticking with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever or Just in the Nick of Time presented by the Dallas Children's Theater, or of course, one of the many Nutcrackers in town.


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