Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“The Fantasticks” From a New Angle: Pasadena Playhouse takes a risk
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s deceptively simple musical, “The Fantasticks” has achieved a place in theatrical history no other show could match. It opened in a tiny Off-Broadway theater in 1960, and ran there for 42 years, making it the longest running show of any kind anywhere in the world. Indeed, at another venue, it is running in New York again today.
What made it work, from the start? First, the storyline, loosely based on a Rostand comedy, had universal ideas to impart. Second, it had an underscore of wit and sheer silliness which proved endearing to generation after generation. Third, it was very simple in production: 8 actors, an “orchestra” consisting of one piano (or sometimes two) and a harp, a couple of poles to hold up a sign and a paper moon/sun, a ladder and a big trunk, with everything else “created” by a mime.
Now the Pasadena Playhouse has recreated this show, and for a “Fantasticks” purist there is an initial moment of concern. First, there is a set. Second, it becomes essentially a play within a play. And then there are some adaptations to the lyrics (some admittedly very necessary) and to small elements of plot. Yet, frankly, one really needn’t have worried. My advice is to set one’s preconceived notions aside, and dive into director Seema Sueko’s vision.
The set, by David F Weiner, is a dilapidated and abandoned Southern California theater, shut since 1969. There is a sense of disorder which might be attributed to conflict, and that powers the director’s approach of having a troupe of actors break into the space with a need to create art in the midst of chaos. However this is also a specific nod to the Playhouse itself, which shuttered in that year, and at one point nearly became a parking lot. The last production done by what was then the Playhouse’s acting school was “The Fantasticks”.
Once the actors arrive, the beloved musical rises out of pieces of flotsam and scaffolding. And just as other productions have used the ladder and poles, these random bits create in the imagination all the places and spaces needed to tell the story of two fathers who pretend to feud in order to inspire their children to fall in love.
There is the storybook romance, the moonlit tryst, and the many other manipulations the fathers try which eventually begin to fall apart. Then, as the young lovers try to venture into the world on their own, there is the hurt and experience which brings them back to each other with love beyond youthful, starry-eyed romance. There are also the silly or romantic songs, the ridiculous aging actors brought in to help the fathers’ plot, and the wise El Gallo to narrate. There is also the Mute, a dancer/mime.
Philip Anthony-Rodriguez gives El Gallo a slightly dark wisdom, and sings the show’s most famous song, “Try to Remember” with a wistful edge. Regi Davis and especially Gedde Watanabe are a hoot as the two fathers: schemingly well meaning, simple and sure of themselves. Conor Guzman gives Matt, the boy dreaming of romance and adventure, a sureness which plays well with Ashley Park’s charmingly quirky Luisa. All these folk sing well – the young lovers particularly – and the story moves with a natural flow.
Of course, some of the best bits are left for the two aging actors called upon to flesh out various fantasy moments. As Henry, the ancient Shakespearean whose company has disintegrated along with his memory, Hal Linden provides just the right combination of confusion and pomposity. Amir Talai, as Henry’s faithful companion Mortimer, offers up one of the most creative and effective of Mortimer’s supposedly famous death scenes in recent memory.
Yet, there are admittedly a few question marks. Though the adaptation of some song lyrics proves both wise and socially appropriate, and the replacement of cartoonish “Indians’ with “musketeers” works well, the young couple’s eye-opening traverse through the world has been given a arc which may not click with some.
Most especially the exchange of Luisa’s “rose colored glasses” for a gradual metal plating of her head, though symbolic, seems a break with the more lighthearted romantic structure of the piece. Likewise Matt’s misadventures are no longer nearly fantastic and symbolic, but contemporary and severe. Also the Mute, played by Alyse Rockett, leaves off miming at odd moments, like the reconstruction of the fathers’ wall, even though it is consistently referenced in the script.
Even so, this production still embraces the sheer theatricality of allowing one’s imagination to take one all sorts of places you can’t really see. It’s still filled with the same winks at youth and idealism, and at the artificiality of the acting profession itself. The songs still soar, and the intimacy is still surprisingly available, even in the Playhouse auditorium, which is worlds larger than its first setting. For this reason, “The Fantasticks” still delights.
And, in the end, the moral that true love is more than fantasy romance, and that friendship survives best with boundaries, are things we can all still buy into. This is why “The Fantasticks” will probably be on stage somewhere on and on into the future.
What: “The Fantasticks” When: through October 2, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $90, with $135 premium seating Info: 626-356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org