In the almost 50 years since its New York premiere, The Fantasticks has become famous for its bare-bones aesthetic and its use of the imagination to tell a simple story. Director Amanda Dehnert's production for Arena Stage at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC, may gild the lily a bit with illusions designed by Jim Steinmeyer and Eugene Lee's meticulously drawn set, but the simplicity and sweetness shine through.
Authors Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) tell an open-hearted story of love and growing up. Luisa (Addi McDaniel) is a dreamy teenager who believes in beauty and romance; Matt (Timothy Ware), the boy next door, ignores his education and listens to his heart. With the help of El Gallo (Sebastian La Cause), a slightly down-at-heel actor and, in this version, a magician, the couple makes its way from infatuation, through disillusionment, to a more mature acceptance of reality. (Interestingly, the ultimate moral of the naïve The Fantasticks isn't too different from that of Leonard Bernstein's adaptation of Voltaire's supremely cynical Candide: find completeness in one's home and those one loves.)
La Cause has the proper feline appeal and silky self-confidence, but his rendition of "Try to Remember," the most famous song in the score, comes across a little lightweight. He also has a fine way with a magic trick, abetted by Nate Dendy as a surprisingly expressive mute.
McDaniel and Ware are engaging both together and individually, well able to depict youth and innocence without off-putting mannerisms. As their respective fathers, Jerome Lucas Harmann is amusingly acerbic and Thomas Adrian Simpson (stepping in for Michael Stone Forrest) charmingly rueful. And Laurence O'Dwyer and Jesse Terrill, as a couple of broken-down traveling players hired by El Gallo, are a delight.
Dehnert and Lee have chosen to set the story in the ruins of an amusement park, which adds atmosphere and gives a context for the use of magic (flowers cascade, confetti flies) but otherwise has little effect on the drama itself.
People familiar with The Fantasticks from past productions or the original cast album will find a few changes. Most noteworthy is a new lyric to "It Depends on What You Pay," El Gallo's sales pitch to the fathers of the lovers for a way to end their manufactured feud. In 1960, audiences would accept an entire tongue-in-cheek song built around the word "rape," but things are different nowthe act is described as an abduction, a raid, but not as the trivialization of a violent crime.