Right after seeing the irresistible new revival of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's legendary musical, The Fantasticks, my companion expressed shock that a show so pure and wholesome could be playing in New York City. This wasn't meant as a knock on the production, but as a simple verbalization of her utter surprise that something so sweet and optimistic could reach the tarnished, disenchanted stages of Gotham. I was inclined to agree until I remembered that we were talking about the same show that originally ran from 1960 until 2002 in this apathetic burg. Slowly, it dawned on me why the performance I attended was packed to capacity: in a world where it's increasingly difficult to find anything to believe in, The Fantasticks reminds us that its sunny outlook is exactly what we all need.
As someone who had never previously seen The Fantasticks—not even during its record-setting 42-year New York run (I know: what rock have I been living under?)—I approached it with fresh eyes and ears. And, I have to say: it's pretty terrific. Featuring a beautiful, melodic score, and directed with panache and imagination by Jones himself, The Fantasticks is a musical that firmly believes in the power of love to conquer all.
The story centers on two young lovers, The Boy and The Girl, whose respective fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, conspire to keep them apart. The Boy is so consumed by his amorous pursuit that he has "moved beyond biology to ignorance." The Girl, also plunged deep in the throes of ardor, is "too vibrant for a name" (hence, their descriptive monikers).
Their neighboring houses are separated by a wall (played by another character known only as The Mute). On one side of the wall, Hucklebee grows flowers, while Bellomy tends to his vegetable garden on the other side. What their children don't know is that Hucklebee and Bellomy have kept them apart on purpose to bring them together. In the charming musical number "Never Say No," the fathers reveal their secret strategy: there's no better way to get kids to go against a parent's wishes than by telling them "No!"
Their plan includes staging an elaborate abduction of The Girl that The Boy can then rescue her from. The kidnapping is led by the rakish El Gallo, the type of manly scoundrel that every young woman dreams of and every parent fears. He brings with him two old actors, Henry and Mortimer, who stand ready to play anything from roustabouts to dying Indians.
Will The Boy and The Girl live happily ever after? The answer is never in doubt. But, the journey towards The Fantasticks' inevitable conclusion holds some surprising twists and turns, none of which I'll reveal here. Getting there, after all, is half the fun.
Jones and Schmidt's wonderful score is loaded with now-classic musical theatre standards, beginning with the opening ballad, "Try to Remember," which invites the audience to "Try to remember / The kind of September / When life was slow / And oh so mellow." It's a perfect way to start the show, transporting viewers immediately into The Fantasticks' golden-hued world. Next up is "Much More," in which The Girl yearns for more out of her humdrum life ("I'd like to be not evil / But a little world-ly wise."). Later on, El Gallo and the fathers hash out the terms of their plan in the uptempo crowd-pleaser "It Depends on What You Pay." Then, it's time for more sweetness as the lovers contemplate "a hideaway / Where we can stay" in "Soon It's Gonna Rain." Jones's lyrics are elegant and moving throughout, and Schmidt's gorgeous music kept me humming long after the show ended.
Jones also directs The Fantasticks with veteran skill, emphasizing simplicity over flamboyance (the set design is kept to a streamlined minimum, opting instead to let the audience imagine the show's different locales). Under his guidance, jokes hit their mark, action moves swiftly, and great performances abound. Leading the pack are Santino Fontana and Sara Jean Ford, both perfectly luminous as The Boy and The Girl, respectively, and with crystal clear singing voices to match. The charismatic Burke Moses gives El Gallo a convincing blend of virility, excitement, and danger, topped with a seductive baritone. Leo Burmester and Martin Vidnovic are delightful as the fathers, as is Robert R. Oliver as Mortimer (his pantomime of accidentally killing himself with a bow and arrow is worth the price of admission alone). Douglas Ullman, Jr. provides a sturdy, silent backbone to the onstage shenanigans as The Mute.
And, if writing and directing The Fantasticks weren't challenging enough, Jones also shows up on stage! Appearing under his old stage name, Thomas Bruce (his program bio states that this is his first New York stage appearance in over 45 years), Jones turns in an accomplished performance as Henry, the Old Actor. By turns confident, funny, and sly, he looks like he's having as much fun as his fellow castmates.
With The Fantasticks, Jones and Schmidt give a new generation of theatregoers a taste of a bygone, but still much-needed, era of American musical theatre. This is theatre history come vibrantly back to life with an enduring, positive message that, judging by the turnout at the performance I saw, still resonates with many today. Take these players up on their invitation to remember a slower and mellower time, and join The Fantasticks on the road to what will hopefully be another long, and well-deserved, run.