‘The Fantasticks’ is a Marvelous Musical Comedy

The Pittsburgh Public Theater opens their season with an American classic.

So simple and yet so puzzling: Jason Shavers (center) says it all with a look while Mary Elizabeth Drake and Jamen Nanthakumar expound in "The Fantasticks."

The Mute (Jason Shavers) holds a rod that signifies the wall between the two young lovers (Luisa) Mary Elizabeth Drake and Matt (Jamen Nanthakumar) in “The Fantasticks.”

The Fantasticks holds the record for the world’s longest-running musical and after seeing Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of it one can understand why. The play’s multiple parts work well together to create a magical theater experience.

First off, it is a great play that involves many human elements including love, dreams, psychology, yearning for adventure, parenting, and yes, even horticulture. The play explores these thematic elements in a mystical and comedic way. The Fantasticks made its debut off-Broadway in 1960  with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics and book by Tom Jones. It’s influenced by the play The Romancers (Les Romanesques) by French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand, who most famously authored Cyrano de Bergerac.

Many rising actors had roles in The Fantasticks and went on to stardom including: Jerry Orbach, Liza Minnelli, and Elliott Gould.

A Little Reverse Psychology

The story is about The Boy (Matt), Jamen Nanthakumar; and The Girl (Luisa), Mary Elizabeth Drake; who live next door to one another. Their fathers, Hucklebee (the Boy’s Father), Gavan Pamer; and (Bellomy) The Girls Father, Daniel Krell are feuding with other and have built a wall between their respective houses in order to keep their son and daughter apart. Is that what they really intend? No, they really desire their children to become a couple, but they realize as parents of young people, the kids will do the opposite of what their parents tell them to do. This is beautifully detailed in the number “Never Say No.”

They fall in love talking and holding hands over the wall. They meet in secret occasionally too. The parents’ plan is going well, all they need now is to hire someone to try to abduct Luisa while Matt is with her so he can fight them off and further strengthen their relationship.

They hire El Gallo, Josh Powell, who also provides humorous lines as the play’s narrator, to stage the abduction. In asking him how much will the abduction cost he sings about all the different ways the abduction can go down in “It Depends on What You Pay.”

For the abduction El Gallo will need help and enlists The Old Actor (Henry), Noble Shropshire, a very stylish player in the Shakespearean tradition, and his sidekick actor The Man Who Dies (Mortimer), Tony Bingham. Both are skilled actors and veterans of local productions.

Josh Powell (l. to r.), Noble Shropshire, and Tony Bingham discuss how to do the abduction.

Josh Powell (l. to r.), Noble Shropshire, and Tony Bingham discuss how to do the abduction.

The abduction goes according to plan and Luisa and Matt are now solidly in love. However their father’s plotting becomes known when Matt gets a big head after fighting off the abductors and his dad let’s it slip out that it wasn’t all Matt’s doing. Now everybody is sick of each other including Luisa and Matt. Matt’s father accuses Luisa’s father of watering his plants too much, Luisa’s father accuses Matt’s father of pruning his plants too much and standing on his kumquat seedlings. “This Plum is Too Ripe” showcases this plot point.

Matt goes off to seek adventure and Luisa is now interested in El Gallo who gives her a mask to look into the world in the fun scene “Round and Round” When she holds the mask down she then sees the real world. Does Luisa run off with El Gallo or reconcile with Matt. Sorry no spoilers here.

Beautiful Songs and Music

Standing on the foundation of the solid play is the beautiful music and insightful lyrics. What originally made me aware of The Fantasticks through the years was two things. One was that there would be periodic news reports on the play’s longevity during its long initial run of 42 years. The other, and more importantly for me, was that I’m a sucker for a melodic tune and I would occasionally hear the song “Try to Remember.” It has a haunting, yet beautiful, melancholy melody to it. Several other top songs from the score include ” Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” as well as “They Were You,” both duets with great harmonies.

The music was played by a very talented four-person orchestra with drums/percussion (R.J. Heid) and upright bass violin (Justin Bendel) to the left of the stage. Piano (Douglas Levine) and Harp (Marissa Knaub Avon) was situated to the right of the stage. The ensemble sounded very tight especially with it being split onto two different sides of the stage.

All actors played their parts brilliantly. Drake had a beautiful and dynamic voice which hit and held many high notes. She excelled as Luisa and looked striking in her color print dress which held a nice medium sheen. Drake is a rising star. Nanthakumar was solid as Matt in both the vocals and acting. When he danced around the set with his retro tennis shoes and teen clothes of the ’60’s it was slightly reminiscent of the guys in West Side Story.

Pamer and Krell injected comedy and good singing into their roles as the fathers. Powell was great in both his roles as The Narrator and El Gallo—bringing humor and a little danger to the roles respectively—and sang a remarkable version of “Try to Remember.”

The Mute, Jason shavers did a nice job in his minimal role as an onstage prop man, holding a stick to signify the wall between the young lovers, and sprinkling them with rain or snow when called for.

The stage held a few simple props and from the middle to rear of the stage was a two-story rustic frame structure in a blueish-white color, something akin to having a stage in a barn. Two big wooden doors were at the rear of the stage. Lighting was basic and effective.

Closing Credits

The Fantsticks had a big impact on Ted Pappas, director and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater. In the program he notes that “this show holds a very special place in his heart. While a young lad he discovered the cast album of the 1960 production at his local library, which also had a record player and headphones. He would go there on Saturday afternoons, listening to the album and imagining what the characters were doing during the different songs.

Pappas had several other interactions with the play as the years went by, including ushering for a production of it and later playing El Gallo in a different production. The other cast members were surprised by how well he knew his lines at the first rehearsal. Now he is enjoying the opportunity to direct and choreograph The Fantasticks as the first production in The Public’s new season.

This is an easy play to love, go and enjoy it.

The Fantasticks has performances through October 30. For more information call the box office at (412) 316-1600 or visit Pittsburgh Public Theater’s website.

Photos courtesy of The Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and loves a great play (and melody).