By John Quinn
American musical theater provides broad choices. The hot ticket in town right now is “The Book of Mormon,” big, brash and raunchy. Compare that to “The Fantasticks,” the enduring classic that first hit the footlights in 1960. It is elegantly simple, enormously entertaining, and wonderfully wise. It is such a winner that the original, off-Broadway production ran a total of 42 years and 17,162 performances. To put icing on the cake, the 2006 revival is still playing.
Given the fact it’s a proven success and is, in addition, designed on the K.I.S.S. principle, “The Fantasticks” is a godsend for smaller theaters. This time, The Box Theater in Mount Clemens is mounting the old warhorse. Can the world-weary critic sit through yet one more production without falling asleep? You better believe he can! It’s something old, something new; something borrowed (the plot) and NEVER blue.
There’s this Boy (Jeff Bobick) and this Girl (Kryssy Becker), the offspring of two feuding Fathers (Casey S. Hibbert and Eric Niece), whose gardens are separated by a Wall (Mandy Logsdon). Any similarity to “Pyramus and Thisbe” and “Romeo and Juliet” is strictly intentional. That’s because composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist Tom Jones took their inspiration from the play “The Romancers” by Edmond Rostand, and Rostand had added a twist to the tale. The feud is a fraud, hatched by the fathers to drive their contrarian kids together. In an effort to seal the deal, they acquire the services of the mysterious El Gallo (Jeffrey Vincent Howson), who is to conduct a mock abduction of Luisa in order for Matt to become her hero. On a perfect night for fantasies, and backed by two hapless accomplices (that would be Mark Konwinski and Steve Xander Carson), El Gallo’s plot succeeds. The villains are defeated! The Girl is rescued! The Boy is a hero! The Fathers are reconciled! Happy ending!
Not so fast. Moonlight fancies can’t endure in the harsh light of day. The couple quarrels; the fathers squabble. “Happily ever after” isn’t a sure thing.
“The Fantasticks” is played a in the spirit of commedia dell’arte. It calls for a minimum of set, costume and properties. It is by no means, however, a simple show to produce. The world-weary critic knows that only too well from past experiences. Schmidt’s score is a complex challenge, and it can easily get away from the accompanist. In addition, it calls for exceptionally talented singers, particularly the three leads. The Box found top notch talent all around, but Becker, Bobick and Howson are consistently strong throughout their ranges, singing songs that have higher highs and lower lows than a Michigan winter. Eleonore Ellero-Groth, the music director, has kept her charges in top form.
Every stage director brings something new to “The Fantasticks,” and Kevin Fitzhenry is no exception. Some choices are inspired; some puzzling. Emphasizing the stark contrast between fantasy and reality, the “swords” in the first act, which are only dowels, are replaced by a real sword in the second. Now that’s inspired. On the other hand, substituting a fork and spatula for comb and mirror is just shtick, since such odd-ball substitutions aren’t carried through. Another puzzling decision continues the tableau at the Act I curtain into the intermission, which lessens the impact of Act II’s opening.
The play has a distinctive balance of the comic and the sentimental, and it is best to “go with the flow.” An insertion of a little levity upstaged the performance of “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” one of the most notable ballads in the American repertoire. “The Fantasticks” demonstrates that “less is more.”
It is a study in contrasts. You can embrace scathing satire Downtown or kick back and enjoy a sweet nostalgia “Uptown” – because Mount Clemens is about as “up” as I ever get in this area. That’s theater for you: Something old, something new, something for everybody.
The Box Theater, 90 Macomb Place, Mount Clemens. 8 p.m. March 21-23 & 29-30. 2 hours, 10 minutes. $22-24. 586-954-2677. http://www.TheBoxTheater.com