As one of the few theatergoers of my generation who had never seen “The Fantasticks,” I probably brought a totally different perspective to the Off-Broadstreet Theater’s production of the world’s most popular musical from at least 90 percent of the rest of the audience. “The Fantasticks,” with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, was the world’s longest running musical. Its initial New York City run of over 17,000 productions lasted from 1960 to 2002; it reopened in New York in 2006 in the Jerry Orbach Theater, named for the first actor to be hired for the original production. It is also the world’s most frequently produced musical, with more than 11,000 productions in the United States and more than 700 productions in 68 other countries.
Jones and Schmidt wrote “The Fantasticks” as a one-act play for a summer theater production at Barnard College. For the text they took off from a turn-of-the-20th-century verse translation by an English woman who called herself George Fleming of “Les Romanesques,” Edmond Rostand’s late-19th-century spoof of “Romeo and Juliet” (to say nothing of “Pyramus and Thisbee” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). The play attracted so much attention from the professional theater world that it was beefed up and in May, 1960, began its 42-year run at New York City’s intimate Off-Broadway Sullivan Theater.
For Off-Broadstreet “The Fantasticks” is a rare case of a repeat production. The musical was part of the company’s opening season 23 years ago. Robert Thick is playing a less strenuous role this time around, taking on the role of Luisa’s father, Bellomy, instead of the seedy old actor who has to climb in and out of a wooden stage trunk. As Off-Broadstreet Theater audiences have come to expect, Thick handles the singing and dancing with his usual low-key skill and aplomb. His wife, Julie Thick, is limiting her responsibilities to the choreography, not exactly a minor element in the production.
As most readers probably already know, “The Fantasticks” tells the story of the young lovers, Luisa and Matt, who are neighbors. Attracted to each other because their fathers have put up a wall ostensibly to keep them from getting together, the attraction turns to disenchantment when the wall is taken down, and both must suffer some misadventures before being reunited. The couple is played by Sarah Krauss and Eddie Egan, both Off-Broadstreet veterans. Krauss appeared in “My Cousin Rachel” last fall, Egan in “A Class Act” a while back. A high school senior, Krauss has a stage presence that belies her age. Egan is a recent graduate of Rider University. An excellent singer, he makes Matt into an extremely attractive and believable young man.
A second high-school senior turns in yet another remarkable performance. Haley Bradstreet, who many regular patrons will recognize as one of the young people who help with dessert at the theater, plays the Mute. She doesn’t say a word, of course, but her stage presence as she passes out props or helps other characters with various tasks and her exuberant and graceful dancing endear her not just to the characters she is serving but to the audience as well.
Matt’s father, Hucklebee, is played by Michael Lawrence, a veteran of Off-Broadstreet and many other area theater companies. New to Off-Broadstreet is Paul Salvatoriello in the pivotal role of El Gallo, the outsider who manages to arrange events so that the plot can move in its intended way. A skillful singer, Salvatoriello handles his managerial role with grace and ease. Active as a singer and guitar player (his first CD was recently issued), Salvatoriello has performed in other area theaters. Henry, the old actor who has to climb in and out of that wooden trunk, is played by Michael Gallagher, and Mortimer, played by Todd P. Gregoire, who recently appeared as Sergeant Troughton in Off-Broadstreet’s production of “Run for Your Wife.”
Last, but far from least, is the pianist, Peter Wright. First heard at Off-Broadstreet in last January’s production of “Jolson & Company,” Wright spent more than 40 years as a faculty member and administrator at Westminster Choir College. He has also had experience as a cabaret performer and continues to teach the history of American music at Westminster. His piano playing is a delight in itself and provides solid support for the cast.
Perhaps because of the musical’s extraordinary familiarity, this production has a certain amount of very low-key conspiring with the audience that may not have been part of the authors’ intentions. But like so much else at Off-Broadstreet, it’s so well handled that I doubt the authors would object.
— Barbara Westergaard
The Fantasticks, through Saturday, October 27, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. One of the most long-running musicals in the world, “The Fantasticks,” written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, is a story of young love, innocence, and whimsy, and features the classic song, “Try to Remember.” Evening performances Fridays and Saturdays (dessert at 7 p.m., curtain at 8 p.m.) and Sundays (dessert at 1:30 p.m., curtain at 2:30 p.m.). $25.50 to $27.25. 609-466-2766.