With a slew of musical revivals headed for Broadway this season, including “A Chorus Line,” “A Little Night Music,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Camelot,” “Dreamgirls,” “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables,” and “Grease” (good grief), no one should be surprised that “The Fantasticks,” another, if miniature-sized, treasure of the American musical theater, is back. This time it’s Broadway for the Off-Broadway phenomenon that played from May 3, 1960, to January 13, 2002, amassing a total of 17,162 performances at the tiny (153 seats) Sullivan Street Playhouse. The catch is that the new Snapple Theater Center, although it has one of its two entrances on Broadway, is designated as Off-Broadway because of its size. The two theaters in the Center have a total capacity of 398 seats. “The Fantasticks” is on the third floor of this refurbished and redesigned theatrical venue. The other stage is on the fourth floor and is home to “Perfect Crime,” another phenomenon, having chalked up 7,764 performances since opening in 1994. With a little luck, “The Fantasticks” may just prove just how eternally endearing an entertainment it is.
Although it got off to a bumpy start with previews delayed by accidents and cast replacements, this beguiling production, under the direction of Tom Jones, is a total joy. The musical’s need for intimacy is perfectly preserved in the tiny theater, the simplicity of design is magically retained, and the joy and felicity of its theme instinctively recaptured. Yes, Jones, the writer and lyricist of this now classic musical, is not only at the helm but also re-inhabiting the role of Henry, the role that he originated 46 years ago. That the show’s delectable melodies, composed by Jones’s long-time music partner, Harvey Schmidt, have worked their way into the great American songbook is not a surprise. Who is not charmed by the melodic sweetness of “Try to Remember,” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and delighted by cleverness of “Plant a Radish,” and “Much More”?
Whether or not you saw the original Off-Broadway production during its first 41-and-a-half years or even remember seeing Jerry Orbach, the first to play El Gallo, it will do your heart good to visit a show that may be even better this time around. Although Schmidt and Jones used Edmond Rostand’s light and poetic play “Les Romanesques” (itself inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”) as a jumping off point, “The Fantasticks” creates a world of suspended belief that is resolutely American in style.
Despite some late re-casting, the performers are all as excellent in the art of theatrical pastiche as one would want. And the atmosphere created by the designers is as magical as it is modest. After all, who will not be awed by the sight of a bed-sheet hung between two poles, a couple of trunks, a bench, a chair and a sprinkle of confetti to set the stage for a youthful romance, revealing the artistry of Ed Wittstein, who also designed the colorful costumes?
The satiric plot mainly concerns the infatuation of a college boy and a 16-year-old girl, who live in homes separated by a wall. They gain maturity and wisdom through a series of misadventures and disillusionments but eventually earn the reward of true love. The plot also considers the wisdom of their respective fathers, who, despite pretending to the boy and girl to be feuding and hostile, have craftily devised a plot to hasten their romance. It ultimately proves the convention that children will instinctively rebel against the parents.
Burke Moses, who created the role of Gaston in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” struts and poses with mucho macho elan as the bandit El Gallo. He also serves as the show’s philosophical narrator, setting the mood and reflectively singing “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh-so-mellow,” a sentiment that gives us pause as we approach another September and the realization that life is far from mellow. Whether she is in or out of the flattering lighting — the work of designer Mary Jo Dondlinger, Sara Jean Ford glows as the Girl (Luisa) (“Please God, don’t let me be normal”), whose impetuous inclinations are defined in the exhilaratingly wishful “Much More.” It isn’t every day that an actor as comely and wholesome as Santino Fontana makes a New York City debut as the Boy (Matt), and formidably validates himself not only as a young musical theater artist, but as a fine actor. Fontana, who recently played Hamlet at the Guthrie Theater, has a pleasing, unpretentious legit voice that is well suited to such ballads as “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and the operatic duet (sung with Ford) “They Were You.” Ford and Fontana, whether tender or tarnished, are simply perfect together.
The comedy shtick is executed with exemplary know-how and is very funny indeed, as mostly contributed by the actor billed as Thomas Bruce (a pseudonym for Jones), as Henry, the aging memory-challenged Shakespearian actor, and Robert R. Oliver, as his side-kick, Mortimer, the clownish cross-eyed Indian with a discernibly British accent and a flair for “death scenes.” Leo Burmester and Martin Vidnovic (who played the role of El Gallo when “The Fantasticks” was in its 13th year) cavort with panache through the delights and the deceptions of the tango-y “Never Say No” and the Spanish-y “It Depends on What You Pay.” The role of the mute doesn’t give Douglas Ullman Jr. much chance to shine, except to hold up his stick (the prop he uses to denote the wall) and distribute a few props with resolve. But like the rest of the company, he appears to have completely surrendered to the poetry and the loveliness of a musical that has the good fortune to be under the spell of one of its incomparable creators.
The exemplary musical accompaniment is by Dorothy Martin at the piano and Erin Hill at the harp. The best news is that there is no amplified sound, no unsightly wires or mikes or gizmos attached to a body part. This blessed consideration has the effect of making every voice sound true to itself and respectful of the purity of the notes. Are there those who have never succumbed to the wistful story or its fragile frame? Probably. But for those who are still willing and able to align with youthful fantasies and steer a course of idealism, “The Fantasticks” is a dream come true. My wish is that it runs long enough for Fontana to come back and play the aging actor perhaps 46 years from now. ***
“The Fantasticks,” Snapple Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street at Broadway. $75. Ticketmaster.com or 212-307-4100/
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.