It is a perfect time to see a show that includes the beautiful song “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.”
“The Fantasticks” at the Bucks County Center for the Performing Arts at Delaware Valley University is just the remedy for crazy weather. Despite the sweltering heat and torrential downpours, you should go see “The Fantasticks.” It has been entertaining audiences for generations. Over four decades ago, I was featured in a production of “The Fantasticks” as Matt, the Boy. It was magical to be performing it on stage. And it is magical to see this simple but heartfelt show.
It opened off-Broadway in 1960 with Jerry Orbach at the Sullivan Theatre in Greenwich Village, and stayed there it seemed forever. Google “longest-running off-Broadway show, and your get this title. Anyone who lived in the Village at that time does not have to “Try to Remember.” It was on the marquee for decades until the original production closed in 2002.
What made it a success was its simplicity and the beauty of its music. If theatrical storytelling is an actor telling a story to an audience, “The Fantasticks” by its very simplicity encapsulates that belief. “The Fantasticks” abjures expensive, realistic sets and effects. It doesn’t need elaborate costume changes. The show combines Noh theatre, commedia del arte and a certain chutzpah, not unlike a barker at a circus bringing you into a magical tent, where instead of seeing things never seen before, you see life and love and growing old. The book by Tom Jones was charming and innovative. He also wrote “110 in the Shade” and “I Do! I Do!” Both shows were done in collaboration with Harvey Schmidt, who wrote the music. Jones also wrote the lyrics.
In regards to what Jones wanted to accomplish with this work, he wrote: “What we wanted (was) to celebrate romanticism and mock it at the same time. To touch people, and then to make them laugh at the very thing that touched them. To make people laugh, and then to turn the laugh around, find the other side of it. To put two emotions side by side, as close together as possible, like a chord in music.”
The most well-known song, “Try to Remember” hit the Billboard Hot 100 charts with versions done by Ed Ames and Roger Williams. It is sung at the beginning, after a Brechtian setup of the stage by the mime. What is amazing is the success of showing all the artifice of the theater, which creates a certain distancing and then have El Gallo, the narrator and guide for this journey, pull us back with the sentimentality of “Try to Remember.”
The story is reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet” in regards to antagonistic families. When Act I begins, we are asked to imagine there are two homes separated by a wall, which an actor/mime is there to portray. And for two hours with an intermission, we remember loving someone with whom our parents have issues, loving in spite of obstacles, loving blindly and seeing our other half as magical, imagining all things are possible. And, during those two hours, we also remember what happens when reality sets in. And yet love is wonderful. It is marvelous. And, yes, it is fantastic.
Aside from the fathers, the young lovers, the narrator and a wall/mime, we also encounter pirates and other unsavory characters that are played by a couple of actors who are employed by the seemingly all-knowing narrator.
The production is excellent. The story gets told and we are drawn in. One of the main reasons is that talented director Irene Malloy cast the equally-talented Mick Bleyer as El Gallo. Bleyer has gotten everything an actor could get out of the role. His El Gallo is smart and sly. He is empathetic with the audience, seductive to the young lovers. Other El Gallos are more staid but, as mentioned in his biography, he is an award-winning fight director. His El Gallo has an engaging physicality. If El Gallo as Narrator is master of his world, it is good casting and a wise acting choice to have an actor who can take full physical advantage of the stage. Moreover, he is so at home with speaking rhyme, which the script requires. El Gallo, for those who might not know, is Spanish for rooster. Which gives me the opportunity to say that this production has an El Gallo to crow about. Bad pun, but good actor and great performance by him.
Great ensemble acting is why this production clicks, beginning with Matt and Louisa, the boy and girl next door. The young lovers need to be earnest, naïve, hopeful, joyful and so in love. All of that is accomplished by the erstwhile efforts of Louis Janunuzzi III and Becca Jackson.
The warring, yet charming dads of the young lovers are played by Scott Langdon as Bellomy, the girl’s father, and Roy North as Hucklebee, the boy’s dad. They are wonderful character actors with fine singing voices. They nailed that right balance of being lovable and cantankerous. Their song “Plant a Radish” is funny and guaranteed to delight an audience, when done right, which in this case it is.
Peter Schmitz as Henry the Actor and Victor Rodriguez Jr. as his sidekick Mortimer are perfection. Schmitz appears to be Shakespeare’s doppelganger and has great comic timing. I never thought of a Hispanic Mortimer, but it works. The casting by the director and the shtick by the actors has the audience guffawing, and how often do you guffaw?
One slight suggestion, however: In the wheelhouse of young Matt, during the song “I Can See It,” there is a transition toward the end where the lyric goes, “I can see it.. Shining somewhere…Make me see it…Take me there and make me a part of it.” It is a decided commitment at that point to go and adventure, where before in the song he was only thinking about it and aspiring to set forth. El Gallo was seducing him to adventure until then and now the bags are packed. I did not see that change at that point, which also musically the dynamics go to fortissimo..
This is not the easiest music to sing. There are some difficult harmonies to master. The voices are uniformly wonderful. Kudos to musical director Christopher Ertelt, who is at the piano with a harp to accompany him. The harpist is either Alison or Rebecca Simpson, depending on your night. And I also want to mention that the set by Dustin Pettigrew and Bob Binkley was charming. Artistic director Howard Perloff continues to bring excellent theater to Doylestown. His goal of having a professional theater for the town is a worthwhile one, and he is succeeding. “The Fantasticks” needs a light touch. What is simple is hard. It takes great care. If you google videos of prior productions or have seen a few, you will know of what I speak. But Irene Molloy and cast are great storytellers and have pulled off the best production I have seen of this show. El Gallo draws you in, while earnest young lovers love and, as those of us deep in December try to remember, your heart breaks a little and you follow.