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The Fantasticks

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There is one, and only one, problem with the uncorkably joyful production of The Fantasticks that just opened at the new Snapple Theater Center: It's now going to be much harder to criticize revivals for opening too soon after their original productions close.

No show has ever had it tougher - and likely no show ever will - than this Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical, which first opened May 1960 and closed January 2002. What possible reason could there be to revive this less than five years after that record-smashing run ended, when large numbers of the two generations of theatregoers who saw it are still around? Let us count the ways.

Older audiences can be transported back to when they first saw this delightful adaptation of Rostand's Les Romanesques. Unseasoned theatregoers can experience for the first time the riches of the show's classic score (including, but not limited to, that celebrated paean to ages and traditions past, "Try to Remember"), luxuriously laugh-laden book, and effusively emotional and universal story (boy gets girl, and then what?). And everyone can relive the pleasures of first love and the aches of learning that "without a hurt the heart is hollow."

But this freshest and most exciting of recent musical revivals is equally notable for how it accomplishes all this. Not with the big stars and bigger sets, interpolations, or dubious "improvements" conventional wisdom insists are necessary. The changes don't extend much beyond a few fussy new lyrics to replace some pesky "rape" (as in abduction) references in one song: Otherwise, director Jones has striven to recreate the Sullivan Street Playhouse experience, adhering to Word Baker's staging - and even that theater's seating layout - with near-absolute fidelity.

"What at night seems oh so cynic / May be cynic by today," runs one lyric, though there's not a drop of cynicism in sight. The Fantasticks entrances now as it always has: with little more than eight talented performers, the simplest of sets and costumes (still Ed Wittstein's fine original designs), and a handful of props. By breaking theatre down into its smallest (and most irresistible) component elements - even going as far as having a lineless character (known as The Mute, played by Douglas Ullman, Jr.) aid the visual storytelling - the authors make the audience an indelible part of the show's creation.

So if you feel that the Boy, Matt (Santino Fontana), and the Girl, Luisa (Sara Jean Ford), are singing directly to you, that's because they are. The struggle of the couple, separated by (and aroused because of) a wall built by their fathers (his, Hucklebee, is played by Leo Burmester; hers, Bellomy, by Martin Vidnovic), becomes so familiar and intimate you easily accept a handful of glitter as rain, tissue-paper confetti as falling leaves, or a cardboard moon as the real one.

The more theatrical things get - especially in the second act, when the separated Matt and Luisa discover a world too nightmarish to navigate alone - the more electric the connection the show makes with you, and with the theatre itself. The millennia-old theatre conventions are bridged to the present-day lovers by three other outsiders: The Narrator (Burke Moses), who sets the scenes and plays rake-for-hire El Gallo, and Henry ("Thomas Bruce," aka Jones, in a role he played in 1960) and Mortimer (Robert R. Oliver), the aged but inventive traveling thespians who emerge from a trunk to help El Gallo enact the ruses that bring Matt and Luisa together.

Both Jones and Oliver hilariously conjure a long-absent performing style with such grace that you may be excused for thinking commedia dell'arte is once again in style. Burmester and Vidnovic, on the other hand, are expert vaudevillians who bring a delightful hat-and-cane quality to numbers like "Never Say No" (the ideal parenting philosophy) and "Plant a Radish" (about the relative ease of raising vegetables rather than children); the pizzazz they bring to their synchronized foot flexing in the former number proves that flashier choreography is not always best.

Mingling old-fashioned and contemporary styles, Fontana and Ford are surprisingly charismatic, with excellent, unaffected voices and a few wry touches of modernity. (When that grin creeps across Fontana's face while singing "What are we gonna do?" in "Soon It's Gonna Rain," there's no doubt what he's referring to.) Moses has never been better, and is all smoky-subtle, seductiveness, and sumptuous singing as the dastardly balladeer Jerry Orbach originated in 1960.

The performers, like the staging, the book, and those magical songs (why are beautiful, declarative melodies like Schmidt's now endangered species?), evoke for 2006 the long-forgotten (or ignored?) goal show people once had to simply move and entertain an audience. In that respect, the show is every bit as good now as it ever was.

Actually, strike that. This cast and production move, speak, and sing with a crisp vitality conspicuously missing on Sullivan Street in the original's waning days. As that Fantasticks wrapped up, it looked and felt its age; now, at 46, The Fantasticks is livelier and more energetic than most new shows. While it remains to be seen whether attitudes and economics will allow this production a marathon run of its own, I, for one, wouldn't complain if it lasted another 42 years.

The Fantasticks
Snapple Theater, 210 West 50th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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