The Fantasticks has been around forever, it seems. It opened in New York in May 1960. It’s still going strong some 40 years and 16,000 performances later at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, making it far and away the longest running musical—albeit an off-Broadway musical—in history.
There have been countless productions all over the world as well. The current revival at Garbeau’s is apparently the third time The Fantasticks has been mounted in that space over the past 20 years.
The Fantasticks was originally devised as a low-budget summer production at Barnard College, and there’s more than a hint of campus humor in the script, with all the talk of poetry and references to chivalry and derring-do. The plot draws on Romeo and Juliet, also on the writings of Edmund Rostand. (What other American musical uses a word like “callow,” or features a nutty drop-in visit from a superannuated Shakespearean actor spouting a wild mishmash of famous lines from comedies and tragedies?)
Some of the songs also reflect a quaint, 1950s-style concern about conformity. (“I’ll grow a mustache!” suggests a character who’s worried that he might eventually become a little too square—oh, those were the days!)
The show also contains one great song—“Try to Remember” (remarkably reflective, considering how young authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt were when they wrote it)—and a bunch of derivative material (borrowing on styles from Spain to the blues).
The production at Garbeau’s, directed by Michael Miller, approaches the material with fondness and veneration. Shannon Moutinho (a high-school student from Woodland, who was good in the title role of The Diary of Anne Frank at Chautauqua last year) and Michael Campbell play the young lovers, and they’re cute. Andy Paul and Gordon Jackson play the lovers’ fathers, who indulge in backyard daddy-style comedy. John Chitambar strikes a series of exaggerated poses as El Gallo, while Allen Shmeltz and David Akona are the campy actors who provide comic relief. Angela Yee (who possesses a good voice) plays the Mute, a sort of stage assistant. The band (keyboards, percussion, bass) was smooth and supportive throughout. The set by Jack Nielsen is basic, but well suited to the task.
When it works, the show has an undeniable charm, with its mix of lovey-dovey romance, graduate student tomfoolery, classical references and cute inversions of one’s expectations. Some of the songs, however, are decidedly on the slight side in terms of craftsmanship, and a few of them run low on fuel in terms of performance values as well. It’s mostly a matter of modest attainment rather than things going seriously wrong; this is a production that I wanted to like a little bit more than I honestly could.