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A CurtainUp Review

New York never stands still, but there are a few things you can still count on -- like having a capuccino at the Cafe Figaro before wandering around the block to the Sullivan Street Playhouse to see The Fantasticks. This amazingly durable little show defies all the musical theater wisdom about big, drop dead pyrotechnics being the only thing today's theater audiences will come to see.

The production values, today as in 1960 when The Fantasticks first opened at this very theater, are notable for being almost non-existent. Eight actors without big name labels (at least not when they appear in the shows) enact the simple story based on Edmond Rostand's play Les Romanesques. The tuneful lyrics and music by Tom Jones and Harvey Smith, require only a harp and a piano to reveal their subtle blend of simplicity and sophistication. These lines from the leitmotif number, "Try to Remember," which has been recorded by countless well-known singers during the last four decades, say it all:
Think of September
When life was slow
And oh so mellow

This slower, mellower, gentler world where young people had time to dream but also had a way of life to which they could return is at the heart of The Fantasticks' enduring charm. In a delightful twist on an even longer-lasting tale, Romeo and Juliet, bookwriter and lyricist Jones created a spoof (two fathers who invent Montague-Capulet style feud as a ruse to get their children, Matt and Luisa, married) that lent itself perfectly to a spectrum of story telling techniques -- verse with heavy doses of rhyme and nature metaphors (again inspired by Shakespeare), the presentational style in which a narrator moves the story forward, the commedia del arte platform and its play-within-a- play actors.

The inevitable question about any long-running musical is does it retain its freshness? With a show as old as this one, is it nostalgia or a case of taking in a landmark or tourist attraction. Can grandparents and parents expect today's media-sophisticated youngsters be enthralled with El Gallo (the character played by the Narrator) and amused by Henry (the Old Actor) and Mortimer (the Man Who Dies)? Since my recent visit to the show was on a school night there weren't too many kds in the audience, but if the New York, stylishly Gap-dressed brother and sister aged approximately eight and ten were any indication-- the answer is a resounding yes. Both were convulsed with laughter at Henry and Mortimer's antics and never fidgeted.

As for the performers, the production seems to retain its energy via a mix of actors who have been in the cast for a long time and fresh talent. William Tost who currently plays The Girl's Father, for example, was in the original one-act production of the show at Barnard College. Bryan Hull has played The Old Actor for the last nineteen years (for more than 7500 performances). On the other hand, David Edwards is still so new to El Gallo that his name wasn't in the program and Max Von Essen filled in for the current regular playing Matt, The Boy. Von Essen is attractive enough and with a good enough voice that he could easily repeat his stint as substitute on a regular basis. Edwards brings the kind of charisma to the role that would make one hope he'll hang around for a while before making a career leap forward as numerous El Gallos (and Matts and Luisas) have done in the past.

Naturally, a durable show's to be expected revolving door cast is bound to bring some disappointments. Watching the current Luisa (Allison Munn), for example, I couldn't help wondering at the sort of magic Liza Minelli and Kristin Chenoweth must have wrought in the same part (Chenoweth is currently being given her own first Broadway star vehicle, Epic Proportions which, alas, is hardly going to break any longevity records). The current two-piece band for the show couldn't be better. Pianist Jeremie Michael has the honor of being the youngest musical director ever of this oldest of all New York musicals. Hank Whitmire who makes the harp literally sing sing performed in The Fantasticks when he was a fifteen year old Houston high school boy and again when he studied for a Bachelor of Music degree in Boston.

Hank's resume points to another reason to include The Fantasticks in your next visit to Greenwich Village. If your high school or college put on any musicals, chances are this was one of them. So why not see it in the place where it all began.

The Show Goes On Making Musicals/Tom Jones Making Musicals: An Informal Introduction to the World of Musical Theatre by Tom Jones, 1998, Limelight Editions

the fantastics
Book, Music, Lyrics: Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
Directed by Word Baker
Designed by: Ed Wittstein
Musical Director/Piano: Jeremie Michael
Harp: Hank Whitmire
Current Cast: David Edwards, Max von Essen, Allison Munn, Richard P. Gang, William Tost, Bryan Hull, Joel Bernstein, Kim Moore Sullivan Street, 181 Sullivan, (Houston/Bleeker Sts) 674-3838/307-4100
Sullivan Street, 181 Sullivan, (Houston/Bleeker Sts) 674-3838
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission
Opened May 3, 1960
The Curtain finally descends 1/13/02 -- on this little engine with more steam than any other entertainment ever. The final weeks brought a rush of ticket sales and were it not for the real estate difficulties that led to the closing, the show could have gone on and on.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 14, 1999 performance

Musical Numbers Act One
Try To Remember
Much More
Never Say No
Soon It's Gonna Rain
It Depends On What You Pay
Abduction Ballet
Happy Ending
Musical Numbers Act Two
This Plum Is Too Ripe
I Can See It
Plant A Radish
Round And Round
They Were You
Try To Remember - (Reprise)

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©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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