The first time I saw The Fantasticks, way back when, I took my fiancée. We adored the chipper first act, in which a “tender and callow” boy and girl fall in a love beyond metaphor. But we hated act 2, in which the Real World of “pain and sorrow” bungs everything up. The mere thought violated our bliss zone.
The second time I saw the musical, a decade later, I was in the midst of a divorce. I thought act 1’s yummy tone and facile shenanigans were a crock — and applauded the second’s jump from moonlight to the true grit of day.
I caught the show last week at Lamb’s. Though not too “deep in December” I hope (“it’s not dark yet,” the poet sayeth, “but it’s getting there”), I’m ensconced enough to recall my initial “fire of September” and dousing of October from a distance. I thought. But The Fantasticks brought both back in triplicate — along with Wordsworth’s line about finding “strength in what remains behind.”
It also became clear how the musical works. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, it wants to be purely generic. There’s a boy, a girl, their parents, a wall, a theatrical troupe. They have names, and probably lengthy biographies, but the less you know about them the better. The Fantasticks (1960) ran for 17,000-plus performances because it may be the most audience-participatory musical of all time. On a minimalist stage, the performers take an invisible step back, so you can relive your vault from innocence to experience. The songs — which, to this December’d ear, often strain at poeticizing — become your time machine. El Gallo isn’t the one trying to remember. And when Matt and Luisa sing “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” you reach for an umbrella.
Lamb’s Players has given the durable musical a contemporary update. To those familiar with the original, the changes require an adjustment — especially the set. Instead of a bare, humble stage and a trunk (the original pretended to be so cheap it couldn’t afford a wall), Lamb’s opts for Vegas-gaudy: a bandstand, circular platforms, and a spiral staircase running up a tepee of iron rods. The floor’s a hodgepodge of Corinthian emblems, and the rear wall bursts with bright yellow dots — Lawrence Welk’s bubble machine on ’roids? The set not only detracts from the original bare-bones concept, it threatens to swallow the cast.
Along with the requisite piano and a harp, Lamb’s added a guitar and percussion. For some songs, more becomes too much, even too glossy. It’s as if the show, which ran for 42 years at NYC’s Sullivan Street Playhouse, now has a budget for future productions, but the affluent touches feel excessive.
Where the concept works, with one exception: The Fantasticks is no longer a white-bread gig where outsiders are definitely Other. The El Gallo is Latino — for once! (though his voice sounded strained, Mauricio Mendoza gave the professional abductor strong physical moves: from break-dance spins to a deft, and funny, death scene).
The music has more contemporary rhythms and flavor. The updates work, with one exception: “Try to Remember,” first time through, is a gentle samba, not the invitation to recall, in 3/4 time, etched forever in memory. Today’s equivalent would be watching Pitbull or Soulja Boy chant a minuet.
The game ensemble cast, including Craig Noel Award-winner Antonio T.J. Johnson, boasts a standout performance. Robert Smyth has a lark as Henry, the old thespian for whom trying to remember — anything — is a tale of untold heroism.
* * *
“God has no jurisdiction in this town,” bemoans young Father Welsh of Leenane, a village in Connemara, Ireland. To fit in, the priest would “have to have killed half me relatives.” During his brief tenure, Leenane has witnessed two savage murders — three, if Coleman didn’t shoot his father accidentally — and a suicide.
It’s as if Martin McDonagh read Sam Shepard’s True West and said, “Yeah?” McDonagh’s The Lonesome West pits brothers against each other in a world governed by survival of the meanest. In Shepard, siblings trash their mother’s house. In McDonagh, it seems, every time Valene adds a new plastic saint figurine to his collection, someone in Leenane adds to its reputation as “the murder capital” of Europe.
Triad Productions (whose admirable goal is “to reach a new generation of theatergoer”) offers a staging that makes up in energy what it sometimes lacks in theatrical savvy. The best scenes are steeplechases, choreographed by Scott Andrew Amiotte, in which the brothers rip, smash, and even blow up parts of Kris Kerr’s rustic set. The other scenes would improve if (a) the actors became less enamored of their Irish accents and more concerned with communication, and (b) they spoke out and up, instead of to the floor.
The Fantasticks, lyrics by Tom Jones, music, Harvey Schmidt
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth; cast: Mauricio Mendoza, Joyelle Cabato, Steve Limones, Courtney Evans, John Rosen, Antonio T.J. Johnson, Robert Smyth, Bryan Barbarin; scenic design, Mike Buckley; lighting, Nathan Peirson; costumes, Jeanne Reith; sound, Patrick Duffy, Robin Whitehouse; musical direction, Charlie Reuter; choreography, Colleen Kollar Smith
Playing through July 26; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30pm. Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Matinee Saturday at 4pm and Sunday at 2pm. 619-437-0600.
The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh
10th Avenue Theatre, 930 Tenth Avenue, downtown
Directed by Adam Parker; cast: Ryan Ross, Bobby Schiefer, Brendan Cavalier, Claire Kaplan; scenic design, Kris Kerr; costumes, Josh Hyatt; lighting, Zack Wikholm; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through July 7; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm. Sunday at 4:00pm. 619-241-2623.