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The Fantasticks: Welcome Back, Old Friend

Once again, large squares of multi-colored confetti are being tossed into the air by a young man who doesn't speak, and a terrible void left in New York's theatrical universe has been lovingly filled with the poetry, humor, romance and whimsy of Tom Jones' words and Harvey Schmidt's music.  The Fantasticks, taken away from us four and a half years ago as a victim of skyrocketing rents, has returned in a joyous production that is less of a revival and more of a transfer of the show that premiered 46 years ago at the Sullivan Street Theatre.

In May of 1960, The Fantasticks was just another one of those little Greenwich Village musicals written by a pair of young unknowns, featuring a 24-year-old kid named Jerry Orbach singing a tender waltz of lost innocence called "Try To Remember." Producer Lore Noto was advised to close the show after lukewarm reviews, but he believed the intimate musical had an audience and suffered through empty houses in the tiny space until the magic of its simple, but elegantly told love story had caught on. In 1971, Noto took over the role of Hucklebee, which he played until 1986.  That same year illness forced him to retire and prompted him to put up a closing notice, but public outcry was so great that he took on a partner to keep the show running until 2002, when the rising cost of Manhattan real estate made weekly losses too great.  The former sight of the Sullivan Street Theatre now displays a sign crassly announcing that "Four Fantastic Condominium Residences" are on their way.

It seems great care has been taken to re-create the Sullivan Street experience in the show's new 50th Street home.Ed Wittstein has replicated his 1960 set design, a bare tiled floor with a wooden platform and a treasure chest of props, with the same half-oval seating arrangement, keeping the audience on top of the action.  The lobby of the Snapple Theatre Center displays many of the window cards and photographs from past Fantasticks productions that were previously seen in the upstairs gallery of the Greenwich Village digs.  Wittstein's costumes have a few different touches than the ones he provided in 1960, but are still lovingly theatrical.  And though I can't say I've memorized director Word Baker's original staging, Tom Jones' direction and Janet Watson's musical staging contain many familiar moves and visual pictures.  Even Schmidt's original piano and harp arrangements (played by Dorothy Martin and Erin Hill, respectively) remain.

For newcomers to the piece, The Fantasticks is based on Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques.  It's the tale of two fathers who pretend to be feuding, knowing that if they forbid their children, Matt and Louisa, to ever see each other they will naturally fall in love.  They hire a dashing bandit, El Gallo, to stage an abduction of the girl, and when he pretends to let Matt defeat him in battle, the fathers have an excuse to forget their grudges and allow the kids to live happily ever after.  But soon the lovers learn that happiness gained too easily sometimes isn't fully appreciated.

At first Jones and Schmidt pictured a grand-scaled musical set in Texas, with a rivalry between Anglos and Spanish.  The girl was to be named Maria.  And though Jones has added a sly reference to West Side Story in the new production, the reason they changed directions was that their delicate plot was getting lost under their dreams of a big Broadway production.  So they opted for a small, imaginative piece, mixing aspects of commedia, Chinese theatre, vaudeville and Shakespeare into a production bursting with the adventurous spirit that would soon spread throughout Greenwich Village.

That spirit is abundantly present in the superb new cast.  Burke Moses has a comically evil glint as El Gallo, faking a Castilian accent and having a grand time with his self-indulgent villainy.  He takes it down to softer tones during more sensitive narrative moments.  Leo Burmester (Hucklebee) and Martin Vidnovic (Bellomy) play the fathers like a well-oiled vaudeville song and dance team.  Santino Fontana (Matt) and Sara Jean Ford (Luisa) play the young lovers as inexperienced, but not completely innocent, especially during the enchanting "Soon It's Gonna Rain" where Fontana hints that Matt is looking to take their relationship to the next level.

Just as in 1960, Tom Jones plays Henry, the old Shakespearean actor, under the pseudonym Thomas Bruce.  At his side, also a veteran of the Sullivan Street production, is the fascinating mug of Robert R. Oliver, playing the Cockney Mortimer, who specializes in Indian death scenes.  Their broad physical comedy is endearing and hilarious.  Douglas Ullman, Jr. is comfortably serene as The Mute, adding sweet touches of warmth.

Jones has made a smattering of revisions in the book.The most effective ones appear in Act II, where Matt and Luisa start re-examining their relationship.  He also changes the amount of time Henry and Mortimer have been acting together to 46 years, a lovely reminder of the year the musical opened.  Late in the Sullivan Street run, Jones also revised the lyrics to El Gallo's "It Depends On What You Pay," a witty number where he lists the different rape scenarios he's willing to act out.  The word "rape" was meant in more of a literary sense when he wrote the lyric in 1959, but with our society's growing awareness regarding sex crimes, audiences have misunderstood his intention, so new dialogue was written to clarify the matter and the "r" word was frequently replaced with "abduction."  The lyric has been revised even more for this revival, with "rape" occurring only once, being further replaced by words like "raid", "masquerade" and, in one eyebrow-raising instance, "the comic snatch."

Like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, the Sullivan Street production of The Fantasticks had been a New York landmark for 42 years.  Visiting that tiny theatre to see a staging that pre-dated the moon landing, The Beatles and the Kennedy presidency was like experiencing a true artifact of our cultural heritage.  We'll never have that exact experience again, but now we have something that comes close.  There is joyous imagination, infectious laughter and elegant melody emerging from a new theatre.  I hope it's still running when I'm long gone.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Top: Burke Moses, Sara Jean Ford and Santino Fontana

Center: Leo Burmester, Burke Moses and Martin Vidnovic

Bottom: Thomas R. Oliver, Santino Fontana and Thomas Bruce

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