The Fantasticks is a charming, brilliant, fascinating little musical that ran off-Broadway for a record 42 consecutive years. The relevant words here are little and off-Broadway. There are good reasons it never ran on Broadway. All those reasons are evident in the Playhouse production.
First I have to admit my prejudices. This is one of my favourite shows of all time. It was a formative theatrical experience for me when I saw it in New York at age 21. I know every word of every great song. I still go back and forth over whether I’d rather play Matt or El Gallo, though I’m too old now for either one.
The Fantasticks is a metatheatrical parable with faux-melodramatic conventions. Youth and parenthood, romantic love, and the sometimes nasty surprises that life brings are its subjects. Its happy ending has an autumnal twist, marked by the iconic song, “Try to Remember.” Premiering in 1960, it’s a 1950s show with all the sexism that entails: the boy Matt (Colin Sheen) is active, the girl Luisa (Bree Grieg) waits passively at home and dreams of rescue. But it also sits on the cusp of the rebellious, culturally revolutionary ‘60s: “I want much more than keeping house,” the girl sings, challenging gender-conventionality. “Beyond that road lies a shining world,” sings the boy—to which the narrator, El Gallo (Steve Maddock), replies, “Beyond that road lies despair.”
In addition to the dashing and cynical Zorro figure El Gallo, there are the boy’s and girl’s fathers (Mark Burgess and Andy Toth), a couple of funny old actors (Simon Bradbury and Christopher Gaze) whom the fathers and El Gallo recruit for their mock-kidnapping of the girl so the boy can save her, and a mime (yes, really) (Jeff Hyslop) who shadows the other actors, supplies them with props and generally embodies the show’s primary flaw: the tendency for charm to cross over into preciousness. A little three-piece band of piano (Bill Sample), bass (Laurence Mollerup) and anachronistic harp (Albertina Chan) provides the onstage music. And the entire score is wonderful, every song a gem.
But this great little off-Broadway-style show, which is about making it up as you go along (David Roberts’ busy, clever set is like a toy box or props trunk), depends for its charm on intimacy and a certain kind of poor theatre ambience. It feels entirely out of place on the big stage of the upscale Playhouse. The singers are miked, for god’s sake—for The Fantasticks! There’s just no way Max Reimer’s direction is going to fill that space with this show, which keeps feeling like it needs another gear. It’s just slightly low-energy, and though all the singers have good voices, no one knocks their songs out of the park—and these are songs that BEG to be…well…fantastic.
Although Maddock’s El Gallo looks great—tall, built and smouldering, perfect for the role--he lacks the darkness and grit that El Gallo should bring to the pretty-bright world of the lovers. He has a nice voice but it lacks the command it needs in songs like “The Rape Ballet” (here renamed “The Abduction Ballet,” with the offending r-word entirely removed) and especially his powerful duet with Matt, “Beyond that Road/I Can See It.” Sheen’s Matt is okay, at his best in the duets “Metaphor” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” with Grieg, who is terrific as Luisa. Non-singers Bradbury and Gaze steal the show as the old actors—not a good sign for a musical.
In a little old barn like the 100-seat Jericho Arts Centre this production would be much more satisfying. Meanwhile, enjoy its beautiful music and wish you were 21 again.