Deep in December it’s nice to remember a show as light and tuneful as The Fantasticks, now onstage for the ninth time at Theatre Three in the Quadrangle. Since 1960 the little musical love story by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt has been part of the American theater canon, with 17,162 performances in its record-setting Off-Broadway run, closing there in 2002, only to be revived four years later. Hundreds of regional and student productions go up every year. You’ve probably been in it.
Try to remember the last time Theatre Three did it. That was back in the 1995-’96 season. It was a different show then in one important respect compared with the one you’ll see now. This latest production is much less rape-y.
Over the years, lyricist Jones has made changes to one big number formerly known as “The Rape Song.” The song wasn’t cuttable; it’s necessary to nudge the plot forward and to define relationships among central characters. Two dads, living next door to each other, carry on a phony feud so that their children, Luisa and Matt, will fall in love. When the kids find out the feud is fake, they rebel and break off their romance. So the dads hire El Gallo, a sexy troubadour, to kidnap Luisa so that Matt will save her and ignite her affections again. It’s a plot right out of Edmund Rostand’s The Romancers, with shades of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In the original Fantasticks, innocent Luisa, yearning for passion, fantasizes about The Rape of the Sabine Women, a tale from ancient Rome about men who, instead of the traditional Dionysian-feast-and-a-play-at-the-amphitheater method of courtship, traveled to a nearby village to steal women from the Sabines to become their wives. Old stories about this by Plutarch and Livy used the Latin word “raptio” to mean abduction, later mistakenly translated as “rape.” So Jones and Schmidt, inspired by ancient myths, classic poetry and Shakespeare, wrote “The Rape Song,” ripe with phrases about “rape with Indians,” “a comic rape,” “a gothic rape” and so on. It’s played for laughs as the dads set the scene for Luisa to be snatched away by El Gallo. They don’t really mean for him to violate her sexually — it’s all a ruse.
But references to rape aren’t so funny anymore. Starting with the 2006 New York revival, Jones revised his lyrics. Retitled “It Depends on What You Pay,” the song employs the same melody but replaces “rape” with “chase” as El Gallo offers the dads a menu of different abductions for escalating prices. In Theatre Three’s production, the dads, Hucklebee (the always marvy Bradley Campbell) and Bellomy (impish Jackie L. Kemp), cavort all over the stage with El Gallo (David Lugo in fine voice and comic twinkle), acting out various kidnap scenarios. And when El Gallo makes off with Luisa, it becomes a galloping chase scene. No need to summon the Special Victims Unit.
The Fantasticks is a fave of small theaters and schools because it can be done on bare-bones sets with simple staging. Not this time at T3. Director Bruce Richard Coleman has gone big, spreading the show over broad ramps and multilevel platforms that stretch diagonally from one corner of T3’s in-the-square space to the other. Scenic designer Scott Osborne ladders bits and bobs of see-through wooden windows nearly to the ceiling. Ropes dangling on either end suggest sailboat rigging or the backstage of a vaudeville house whose innards have been dusted off for one more show. Lighting by Lisa Miller creates starlight, moonbeams and rays of sunshine as scenes shift rapidly between moods. These designers have beautifully framed their work around a delicate musical comedy full of soaring ballads and jingly piano notes. (Musicians Pam Holcomb-McClain and Michael Dill handle all of the nonstop score from their perch high in a corner.)
The eight actors are all light on their feet (Linda Leonard’s tight choreography keeps them waltzing and wafting all over the stage) and though some are stronger singers than others, their performances complement each other and the material.
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As El Gallo/The Narrator, Lugo lends his dark, gravelly vocals to the show’s best-known ballad, “Try to Remember,” and he’s a good comic “heavy” to the goofy dads. Playing The Mute, a nonspeaking role that casts a person as the wall between the lovers, lithe Jill Lightfoot lives up to her name. In the roles of Luisa and Matt, Natalie Coca and Dennis Wees have a quick, sweet chemistry and their voices blend in creamy harmonies. Coca’s way of getting a laugh through her toss of a gesture or a pause before a word reminds me of another Coca from comic history: Imogene.
The best performance, the surprise, the laugh-till-you-weep gift of this Fantasticks, is Terry Vandivort’s turn as The Old Actor. Summoned by El Gallo to help with the abduction scene, the ancient thesp and his sidekick (ably played by Darren McElroy) slowly emerge, limb by shaky limb, from a trunk sitting center stage. Vandivort’s hysterically funny efforts to pull his spindly legs out of the trunk, his perfectly timed double takes and grimaces as he attempts to recite a Shakespearean soliloquy — here’s an actor bringing decades of experience to a part and infusing it with the sheer joy of performing. (Vandivort’s been acting at Theatre Three for more than 40 years.)
The Fantasticks lives on because of its simplicity and its music. And there’s a warmth to this musical that so many newer ones lack. You’ll take a nice message home from it. “Without a hurt/The heart is hollow” go the words to “Try to Remember.” If you think you’ve seen The Fantasticks enough, it wouldn’t hurt and would do your heart good to revisit it at Theatre Three.
The Fantasticks continues through December 27 at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. (in the Quadrangle). Tickets $25-$50 at 214-871-3300 or theatre3dallas.com.