Fun Fact: Originally The Fantasticks, that quintessential musical about love and romance, was going to be performed on horseback. When Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) first conceived of writing a contemporary version of Les Romanesques by Edmond Rostand, itself a spoof of Romeo and Juliet, the two Texans were going to set it on a couple adjoining ranches and title it Joy Comes to Deadhorse. In addition, they wanted to perform it with real horses on stage. They soon came to their senses, which is a good thing for us and for the crew that would have had to clean up after every show.
That production opened minus any equine performers in 1959 and almost closed the first night. But then it ran for 42 years in the small, off-Broadway Sullivan Street Theatre in New York City, and it's still going strong to this day. In this staging directed by Victoria Bussert at the Great Lakes Theater, the humor leads the way, thanks to a couple delightful acting turns. And the music, of course, is exceptional as always. But this production doesn't display some of the intimacy and magic that can make The Fantasticks truly live up to its name.
It hardly seems necessary to review the story here, since this musical has been produced by nearly every theater company known to man, from high schools on up, over the past half century. Suffice to say that two fathers on adjoining properties want to marry off their kids to each other. But being aware that kids do the opposite of what their parents say, the dads pretend to try and keep 16-year-old Luisa and 20-year-old Matt apart, thereby ensuring their attraction to each other.
The durable yarn is narrated by El Gallo, a sultry and mysterious man who sets the theme in one of the best opening numbers in the history of musical theater: "Try to Remember." For Jones and Schmidt, who had written many songs together in their student days at the University of Texas and then in the Army, "Try to Remember" was the first time they had written a song by starting with the music first. And the blending of that lovely melody with insightful lyrics has made it an iconic part of American musical history.
Indeed, there are several enduring tunes in this show, such as "Much More" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain," during a first act that is immersed in romance and moonlight. After all that lovey stuff, we are plunged into an Act 2 rife with romantic perils exposed by the light of day.
Playing the two lovers are Clare Howes Eisentrout as Luisa and Pedar Benson Bate as Matt, and they are fine individually in their songs and quite cute playing off each other. Eisentrout writhes with adolescent lust when Matt croons about her endearingly in "Metaphor" ("You are heat!" "You are love!"), indicating the direction their passion might take. However, the two dads played by Lynn Robert Berg and Justin Ness don't always find the right comic blend for their characters, and their dance moves seem a bit too studied.
In the key role of El Gallo, Michael Padgett has the hot look and sinuous moves down pat. But his singing voice lacks the power in the lower registers to genuinely stir the soul. At times he almost disappears vocally, particularly during "I Can See It," at the beginning of Act 2 when El Gallo is supposedly introducing naïve Matt into the harsh reality of the world. No wonder Matt didn't get the message.
Speaking of perils, the Hanna Theatre venue seems too large for this intimate show, even though the Hanna is actually quite cozy. This small show with no frills is placed in front of a three-story-high, largely unused metal structure that soars above the actors. There's probably no way around this, since making the stage area lower and smaller would look out of balance. But it still doesn't work ideally for this show.
Also, the costuming concept by Bussert and/or costume designer Esther M. Haberlen seems off-center. The Fantasticks is intended to be a highly theatrical presentation of reality. But instead of that, we have the fathers decked out like two guys shopping at the Home Depot, and El Gallo looking like a dude hanging out at the bar at Lago in a snug leather jacket with a hip red plaid shirt tied around his waist.
Of course, we do get some theatricality in the persons of Henry and Mortimer, two down-on-their-luck actors who are employed by El Gallo to help fool the kids into falling in love. Aled Davies and Jeffrey C. Hawkins camp it up outrageously in their respective roles, and thank god for that.
All in all, The Fantasticks is a wonderful play, and any chance to see it is a treat. Even with some glitches.The Fantasticks
Through May 29 at the great lakes theater
2067 East 14th St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org
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