by Michael Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
The Narrator (Josh Powell) introduces to a Boy (Jamen Nanthakumar) and a Girl (Mary Elizabeth Drake) and presents us with their unusual path to love in Off-Broadway’s longest running musical, “The Fantasticks.”
The plot of the first act is fairly simple. It’s sort of “Shakespeare for Dummies.” The Boy’s Father (Gavan Pamer) and the Girl’s Father (Daniel Krell) devise a plan to marry off their progeny by adapting the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” and pretend that they’re feuding. The kids, like Pyramus and Thisbe, are separated by a Wall (capital W).
Side note: Just like the Mechanicals from “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Wall is played by a person, a Mute (Jason Shavers) who not only stands in for the pile of stone, but also moves the play along with panache. He maintains the props, provides shelter from storms and even distributes snow, rain and confetti when needed.
When the fathers decide it’s time to get their kids together, they have to come up with a ruse to bring about a contrived reconciliation. Enter El Gallo, our fearless Narrator (Powell). He is hired to kidnap the girl and fail; thus uniting the fathers and cementing the lover’s faith in one another. He employs two actors, the Old Actor (Noble Shropshire) and the Man Who Dies (Tony Bingham), an actor known for his death scenes.
It goes all too well. Everything goes exactly as planned. Luckily, the second act adds conflict and desire. It’s a much needed booster shot. It’s much more interesting when things go awry after intermission.“The Fantasticks” is like lemon meringue pie. The first act is fluffy and light like the meringue, but the second act is tart and sticky sweet.
“The Fantasticks” has a long history, it’s based on Edmond Rostand’s “Les Romanesques.” It was the “Gunsmoke” of Off-Broadway; it ran for two decades. The show features music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones). The most famous song from the show is “Try to Remember,” a romantic lullaby. The other songs are pithy and fun, but not nearly as hummable.
Director Ted Pappas saves this old chestnut with a stellar cast. Shropshire and Bingham are a comedic tour-de-force. The story zings whenever they are on stage. Do they overact? Yes, but it’s kind of the point. They’re playing over-the-top actors by acting over the top. It works superbly here.
Powell is charismatic and charming and gets the best songs in the show, including the show-stopping “Try to Remember.” He has a mellifluous voice.
Shavers does a terrific job, considering he does it without dialogue. His facial expressions are delightful.
Musical director Douglas Levine kept the orchestra small but mighty. Ted Pappas directed with a flourish. He took the number “Round and Round” from a dark fantasy to high camp. Try not to laugh. You won’t be able to get through it. I double dog dare you.
Once again, James Noone scenic design is magical. It’s a perfect setting for this romantic comedy.
The fantastic cast makes “The Fantasticks” a fun evening out.
“The Fantasticks” runs from September 29 till October 30 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.