And it certainly starts off that way. Eric McCormack opens the show with a beautiful, gentle rendition of "Try to Remember," creating a dreamlike fantasy world populated by a Girl, who thinks her life should unfold like a fairytale princess's, and the Boy enthusiastically in love with her.
And then it all goes wrong. The gentleness we first saw from McCormack infuses his entire portrayal of the rogue El Gallo; even when seducing the Girl and intentionally breaking her heart, there's no malevolence to him. Sure, there's a sexual presence there (aided by the leather pants, courtesy of costume designer Kate Bergh), but there's no underlying danger to him. He's always giving a kind glance or touch to the Mute who follows him around, and he has a genuine fondness for the Boy and Girl. And, though El Gallo plays them cruelly, he wears his heart on his sleeve, openly regretting his acts. Without a streak of darkness here, there's no real conflict to drive the show.
McCormack's performance isn't the only misfire. Barry Dennen and Hap Lawrence nearly stop the show dead as two actors El Gallo hires for a bit of mischief. They're playing strictly for laughs, but there's nothing particularly funny about two very old, very bad actors, doddering around the stage mis-remembering lines. Kimberly Mikesell's Mute starts the show with an otherwise adorable pre-curtain speech, ruined by the repeated use of a whistle so shrill she actually wears out her welcome before the play even starts. Harry Groener and Eileen T'Kaye are wasted as the well-meaning, scheming parents, playing only the broad comedy in their characters. At one point, there's a hint at more. Groener's Bellomy states that when you plant a vegetable you get a vegetable, but he had no idea with his daughter that he'd end up with "a rose." Groener's read on the line is terrific; there's frustration that his teenager daughter is so unpredictable and difficult to controlbut there's also awe there, and parental pride. And then that moment of insight into a father trying to raise a daughter alone is gone, and Groener and T'Kaye go on to sing "Plant a Radish" while carrying around big prop vegetables for no real reason.
Indeed, Lee Martino's choreography takes many of the lyrics too literally; only rarely is there charm or wit in the dance. Driscoll Otto's lights suffer from a similar literalismas soon as someone on stage names a color, he bathes the curtains in it. Jason Alexander's direction is all too unsubtle; when the parents sing "Never Say No," do we really need a bright red "No" projected behind them?
There is a bright spot in the productionthe sparkling performances of Alison Woods as the Girl, and, especially, Lucas Grabeel as the Boy. While the Girl's romantic fantasies are certainly ridiculous, Woods shares them with pure, happy beliefWoods makes the Girl likeable because she isn't giving a performance that mocks the Girl; she is instead connecting with that part of the Girl that was in all of us, once. Grabeel, too, has an inherent understanding of how to play the hormonally-heightened emotions of his character, earning laughs and sympathy all at once. There is not a single misstep in his performancewhile those around him may be mugging or overplaying, there's absolute honesty here, and a stage presence that suggests there just might be huge things ahead.
The Fantasticks runs at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA through May 17, 2009. For tickets and information, see www.reprise.org.
Reprise Theatre CompanyJason Alexander, Artistic Director; Susan Dietz, Producing Director; Danny Feldman, Managing Directorpresents The Fantasticks. Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones; Music by Harvey Schmidt. Scenic Design Bradley Kaye; Costume Design Kate Bergh; Lighting Design Driscoll Otto; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Associate Music Director Matthew Smedal; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Orchestrations Darryl Archibald; Technical Director Chris Batstone; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Casting director Michael Donovan, CSA; Magic Consultant John Lovick; Press Representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; Marketing Allied Live, LLC; Director of Development Christine Bernardi; Production Coordinator Rob Rudolph. Musical Direction by Darryl Archibald; Choreographed by Lee Martino; Directed by Jason Alexander.