In May of 1960, when The Fantasticks first opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson gave it a mixed review, calling it a “dainty masque” and noting that the “uncomplicated orchestrations are captivating and the acting is charming” but that the “story is slight” and the play’s second act fails to “sustain the delightful tone of the first.” His conclusion: “Perhaps The Fantasticks is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures.”
Atkinson was talking about the length of the play, of course, and not the length of the run. Nevertheless, in one sense he could not have been more wrong: The Fantasticks went on to have the longest run of any musical ever – it played continually at the Sullivan Street Playhouse for 42 years, until January of 2002, with regular updates to the cast that included many actors who have gone on to become household names (among them: Jerry Orbach, F. Murray Abraham, Kristin Chenoweth, and Liza Minelli). The play’s appeal to audiences seems to have continued to mystify critics, however. In 1980 Times critic Alvin Klein confessed that he was resistant to its charms and mused that the reason for the play’s endurance might be its “combination of artifice and intimacy; a pseudosophisticated style for very sentimental and simple tastes.”
Director Ted Pappas has fond memories of listening to this show as a young boy and finding it a “gateway to a magic world.” I, too, recall seeing this show as a teenager, in the late 1970s, at a dinner theater in Detroit; my acting teacher played El Gallo, and I remember being captivated and delighted by the metatheatricality of the play and the way the cast brought the story to life with minimal props and set. It seemed, at the time, fresh and exciting.
Pappas’s reboot of the musical is very fine, but whether or not you’ll find The Fantasticks magical and delightful may very well depend on how susceptible you are to a trip down memory lane. The show’s presentational, theatrical style feels very much of its era, and without the novelty of style that the original brought to the stage over a half century ago, the musical’s liteness becomes all the more evident. Nevertheless, for audience members who seek a bit of droll entertainment, The Fantasticks offers a lovely opportunity to indulge in some sweet nostalgia.
The musical presents a little fairy tale, loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s play Les Romanesques (and bearing similarities to both Romeo and Juliet and the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play of Midsummer Night’s Dream). Two young lovers are separated by a wall that they think their fathers have built to keep them apart; but in actuality the dads, deploying Dr. Spock-methods of reverse-psychology, are pretending to be enemies in order to encourage their children to “rebel” against them and fall in love. The plan has so far worked, and the fathers seal the deal by contracting with a shady character named El Gallo (Josh Powell) to arrange an opportunity for the boy to heroically and romantically rescue the girl from (a staged) abduction.
Act One ends on this happily-ever-after note; Act Two offers the cynical counterpoint to that romantic fantasy, showing the discontent and disillusionment that follow after two people precipitously fall in love. Now the lovers are sent on journeys that involve despair, desperation, and torture, only to finally reunite in the end – wiser, and more ready to take on the ups and downs of a relationship.
The Public’s production of the play is a solid one, with a cast that brings a bright and chipper energy to their performances. Daniel Krell and Gavan Pamer make a suitable pairing as the fathers, jovial and scheming without becoming overly cute. Josh Powell has a gorgeous baritone and a charismatic allure as the narrator/abductor, and Tony Bingham and Noble Shropshire suitably ham things up as the hired players who prod the lovers along on their journey to love and back again. As the two lovers, Mary Elizabeth Drake and Jamen Nanthakumar are sweetly winning, and Jason Shavers plays The Mute with dry irony. The cast is accompanied by a really excellent four-piece orchestra, comprised of Marissa Knaub Avon on harp, Justin Bendel on bass, and R. J. Heid on percussion, and led by Douglas Levine, who also plays the piano.