Also see Richard's review of Noises Off and Bob's review of Crime and Punishment
The Fantasticks may just be the hardest musical in the canon to review. What can a crafty critic say about it that hasn't already been said a hundred times, and probably said more wittily and with greater insight? In the past fifty years (Gad, can it have been a half-century already?) this airy, magical bit of theatrical joy has become without a doubt the most-praised as well as the most-performed of all musicals, and it retains every bit of its original freshness and charm.
The current production at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis begins with a huge advantage: an absolutely first-rate director, musical director and design team. Victoria Bussert has become a favorite of Rep fans for her deft and empathetic direction of shows like Into the Woods, 2007's splashy Kiss Me, Kate, and the inimitable [title of show] which lit up the Studio Theater earlier this year. In her capable hands, The Fantasticks sails along full of youthful vigor, a grand celebration of young love and the human imagination.
David Horstman, whose performance as Larry the piano player was such a delightful and essential element of the success of [title of show], is the Musical Director and onstage pianist for this show. With harpist Elizabeth Gerberding (re-creating the original accompaniment), he builds a flawless foundation for his singers and draws the audience into his obvious affection for the music.
Gary English, who designed the simple, spare and very effective set, and Dorothy Marshall Englis, who did the equally simple and effective, though not quite so spare, costumes, give us a picture that is not as exotic as some productions, but altogether more approachable and sympathetic. The young people are dressed as ordinary young people might be (assuming that one of them is a dreamy sixteen-year-old girl), and the fathers are dressed as if they might really be going out to work in the garden. I did miss the familiar appearance of Henry (the old actor) out of his prop box, but the whimsical tandem bike on which he and Mortimer make their entrance in this version is a delightful substitute.
The cast, splendid as an ensemble, features excellent individual performances by Brian Sutherland as a rougher-hewn but still romantic El Gallo; Cory Michael Smith as starry-eyed Matt; and Dan Sharkey and Scott Schafer as the feuding fathers. Stella Heath, as lovely as young Louisa ought to be, moves beautifully. Sara M. Bruner as the Mute is a charming, full-sized Tinker Bell, and John Woodson is wonderfully funny as Mortimer, the intrepid expert at dying.
One of the high points of the evening is long-time Rep favorite Joneal Joplin's delightful reading of the role of the old actor, Henry. There is a certain nostalgic irony involved here; Jop has really done all the roles that Henry thinks he has done, and done them with grace and distinction. He brings enormous comic energy and stagecraft to this performance; his Henry is hilarious, and his final exit (stage right) is very poignant, indeed.
In short, the Rep's 50th anniversary production of The Fantasticks is everything an audience could hope for and then some; it is an altogether grand and fitting capstone for the 2009-2010 season. It will run through April 11 on the Browning Mainstage. For ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.