Among musicals, The Fantasticks occupies the position of the manual typewriter: a nifty advance in its day, but, excuse me, we're working over here in Word for Windows XP. In 1960, when the show opened off-Broadway, musicals tended to be big and showy, with large casts, flashy costumes and of course a happy ending. On all these counts, The Fantasticks broke new ground, with its cast of eight, nonexistent set, simple props and simplistic message. Throughout the early '60s, it must've seemed like a new direction in musicals.
But after Falsettos and Rent and all of Sondheim, The Fantasticks seems only sterile. The ground it broke has been plowed over, replanted and harvested several times over.
The plot concerns two fathers (Dan Gookin and Bob Baker) who spend an entire play cleverly using reverse psychology on their kids: If we forbid them to marry, the dads surmise, then that's exactly what the kids will do. The ruse works, and the first act finale features a happy ending. The Fantasticks tries to avoid sentimentality by devoting its second act to all the lessons which must be learned by young lovers -- or, in the script's heavy-handed symbolism, how "we need to be burned a bit and burnished by the sun." (A cardboard sun is hung out, in case we lose our way in the exchange of ideas.)
Bridget Curran and Robby French are fine as the young lovers, Luisa and Matt. Curran knows how to be coy, and she dances prettily. French, full of earnestness, is also capable of slight comedy.
Indeed, the three leads all have pleasant singing voices and are very presentable in their acting. In the mystifying narrator role of El Gallo, Bob Brannan's voice is warm, but he seems stiff and uninviting onstage. He could afford to let loose with more of a spirit of mischievous play.
Comic playfulness comes across best in this production when Gookin and Baker step forward. They're amusing in "Never Say No," their ode to the value of always keeping the kids guessing.
Too often, though, the lyrics are just flowery mush. At one point, we're enlightened by the observation, "A month goes by, we're one month older." A self-doubting character is urged on with the stirring encouragement, "You can if you can." Mispronouncing El Gallo's name is a running gag, evidently the very pinnacle of humor.
At various points, Matt and Luisa and El Gallo all climb up on ladders and ruminate about life and love and feelings, nothing more than feelings, yadda yadda blah blah, enough already.
The Fantasticks, the Energizer Bunny of off-Broadway (42 years and more than 17,000 performances) has aged into obsolescence. So why is it revived so often? Because assembling the necessary components seems so easy, the results so unthreatening. The set, after all, is a just a junkheap, props and costumes come right out of somebody's attic, and you only need a pianist and three singers, really (the fathers can fake it, and then there's the Mute).
Community theater audiences arrive ready to like what they're about to see. The leads' classmates will clap at every move. Ohmigod, Mr. Baker was sooo funny. Mr. Brannan has an awesome voice. (It's very nearly true.) It's fun to watch a teacher, a neighbor, a cousin running around onstage in funny clothes, acting weird. It's only natural to grin when ordinary friends and acquaintances pop up onstage: Hey, I know that guy.
Yet even a community theater should consider larger concerns. Most of us don't know the actors. We're here for something different than watching television at home, alone. But shows like this less-than-fantastic production slam the door shut on any opportunity for reminding anybody about the power of this communal gathering we call the theater. If a play simply offers the same kind of comforting platitudes as TV, then why pay $15? At home, the TV is free.
The moments most playgoers anticipate in this musical come at the beginning and end, when El Gallo sings the Robert Goulet standard, "Try to Remember." Curiously, even though the script calls for the entire company to sing the reprise, Brannan sings just a single solo chorus, flattening out the potential for soaring.
Which is just as well. Despite the good voices of Brannan, Curran and French, we should all try not to remember this kind of show in September.