Anything that runs off-Broadway for 17,162 performances over 42 years must have something going for it. "The Fantasticks" has young love, some great songs and a whimsical world-weariness, not to mention echoes of the commedia dell'arte and even Shakespeare.
The charms of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's 1960 musical fable are on display anew in the first-ever production of Ashland's new Theatre Convivio. The new community theater group's good-hearted revival opened to a sparse crowd on Friday night in the theater's refurbished digs at the Bellview Grange on Tolman Creek Road in Ashland.
With often terrific singing to live music by pianist Chris Bingham and harpist Celia Canty, eye-candy costumes by Michele McLaughlin and that certain something that's endured all these years, the play is part allegory, part romance and all musical.
It tracks the courtship of two teens, Matt (Jordan Lawhorn) and Luisa (Iris Mairead Young), who grow up on opposite sides of a dividing wall built by their neighboring fathers.
The girl's father, Bellomy (Douglas Martin Young), and the boy's father, Hucklebee (Peter Quince), are pretending to feud to trick the youngsters into falling in love in a belief that young people will readily fall in love if it is forbidden.
The fathers hire a pair of itinerant actors (David Dials as The Old Actor and Cory Aaron Davison as The Man Who Dies) to stage a mock rape, or abduction, so that Matt can become a hero by seeming to save Luisa. Of course, if everything went as planned, you wouldn't need a second act.
In on the conspiracy is the dashing El Gallo (Richard Heller, in the role created by off-Broadway by Jerry Orbach). Wearing a costume he could have filched from Zorro, El Gallo begins as the narrator but soon slips into the action. His sometimes cohort is a props person known as The Mute (Lisa-Marie Werfel, proving again that a character can be compelling without dialogue).
El Gallo embodies the play's wistful spirit of hard-won wisdom. He also gets to sing the show's signature tune, "Try to Remember." The singing is almost consistently strong throughout, with Matt and Luisa lighting it up in "Metaphor," the conspirators camping it up in "It Depends On What You Pay" and the ensemble ripping it up in "Abduction Ballet." The latter is sometimes known as the "Rape Ballet," and the word is used here in the sense it's used in Livy's "The Rape of the Sabine Women" or Pope's "The Rape of the Lock."
When Old Actor and The Man Who Dies emerge from an old trunk on the stage in the first act, things pick up considerably. Old Actor claims stage triumphs of long ago, and although you cannot trust either his stories or his memory, his misty-eyed passion for the theater is strangely moving.
The Man Who Dies seems to be a Cockney Indian. He got his name because that action is his specialty on the stage, and like an actor lampooning the drawn-out death of a Shakespearean tragic hero, he milks it for all it's worth.
"The Fantasticks" is loosely based on the 19th-century play "Les Romanesques" ("The Romancers"), by Edmond Rostand, who would go on to write a popular play about another complicated romance involving a fellow named Cyrano de Bergerac.
With its clever use of simple props (a window, a moon, a sun) and its use of character types, "The Fantastics" bows strongly to the commedia tradition. But the production also makes use of some eye-popping effects. Three clever, three-sided columns or panels upstage rotate on their axes to serve up three different flats: Venice, Athens and (I think) Egypt.
We are invited to see the fathers as examples of the vecchio, or old man. Matt and Luisa are innamorati, or lovers. Old Actor and The Man Who Dies are zanni, or clowns. The twist is that the older generation, instead of blocking the lovers, encourages them.
There are Shakespearean notes, too. Young lovers divided by feuding families sounds like a certain play set in fair Verona. The vegetation fixation of avid gardeners Bellomy and Huckabee hints at the Bard's green world comedies. The wall makes us think of the Mechanicals' production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
In an ensemble play every role can make it or break it, and there's not a weak performance here. Heller, who also directed, is a rather sunny El Gallo. A suggestion of something darker would make him more of a foil for the zannis. But it's still affecting when he gently plucks the tear from Luisa's eye.
"The Fantastics" has a certain balance. Characters can be seen as pairs. The lovers make beautiful music together, although they must outgrow it. The fathers make the play's conflict, working as villains although they are not villainous men. Old Actor and The Man Who Dies make rollicking fun in the tradition of the zanni.
Critics haven't always been kind to the play. "Perhaps 'The Fantasticks' is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures," opined Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, who thought the play too thin to support two acts. On the contrary, the second act, particularly the lovers' disillusionment in the real world, which is sketched for us in quick fantasy sequences, could stand to be more fleshed out.
But then again, the play's tough-tender point is a simple one: that experience of the world is the cure for youthful infatuation. And El Gallo shows us enough for us to get the big picture, which is that often, all that moonlight and romance evaporates like wisps of fog in the morning the sun.
"The Fantasticks" plays Thursdays through Sundays at Theatre Convivio, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland, through Aug. 18, with matinees at 2 p.m. Aug. 11 and 18. Tickets are $20 and $15. Visit www.theatreconvivio.com or call 541-708-1817.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.