From the moment the audience enters the room for Spreckels Theatre Company’s shiny new production of Jones & Schmidt’s beloved The Fantasticks, theatergoers are plunged into the celebrated play’s sweetly surreal, amiably over-the-top romantic world. Romping across the splendidly spare set—little more than a raised platform and a large, mysterious wooden trunk—is the Mute, the musical’s silent co-narrator, played with impressive physical charm and commitment by Denise Elia. Skipping, dancing, pantomiming and playing, she sets the tone for what is to come: an agreeably stripped-down, highly fairy-tailish examination of young love and the hard knocks of life.
Directed by Matthew Teague Miller, this production—in the intimate Condiotti theater—enhances much of what is good about this often difficult-to-stage, 1960 show, all while de-emphasizing those elements that some audiences have found to be sadly dated or in poor taste. I have to admit, though I’ve always loved the music of The Fantasticks, with songs like "Try to Remember," "Soon It’s Gonna Rain," and "Never Say No," I’ve never seen a production that meets the heightened expectations raised by the show’s shimmering reputation. It played for an astounding 42 years off Broadway, and has become a staple of community theaters and college theater arts programs for decades.
Despite the fact that, in many ways, The Fantasticks is exactly the kind of show I would normally fall in love with, I’ve been consistently disappointed. The good news is, with the graceful direction of Miller, a cast perfectly suited to their characters, and a clever series of changes, the dramatic and romantic aspects of this production absolutely pop right off the stage. In so intimate a setting, the silly-lovely dialogue seems immediate and real, and the chemistry between the actors had me writing the words “sweet,” “charming” and “very pretty” in my notebook.
The co-narrator character El Gallo, often played as a charlatan from start to finish, is here allowed to start the play as a truly decent guy, with actor Steven Shear dropping the oft-used goofball accent to sing "Try to Remember" with so much sincerity and straight-to-the-heart simplicity, few will be able to resist feeling melted into love-story mode right out of the gate. That story follows The Girl (Adria Swan) and The Boy (Gabriel Stephens), coaxed into falling in love by their fake-feuding fathers. The young lovers leapfrog through a plot involving a pretend abduction—described in much cruder terms in the original production—longing, disappointment, broken hearts, wisdom gained, and love rekindled.
If only the musical side of this production stacked up to everything else. Accompanied by musical director Lucas Sherman—who carries the show on his capable back as the sole accompanist, on a baby grand in the corner of the stage—the problems include an uneven range of singing strength among the cast, some of the singing drop-dead-great, some, um, not so, with harmonies that had me writing the words “yikes” and “ouch” next to all those other nice words I’d already written. When the singing is fine, even exceptional, the fact that no mikes are used makes it extremely hard to hear all of the lyrics, many of which are drowned out by the piano, despite Sherman’s heroic attempts to keep the music beneath the singer’s voices.
And so, my quest to finally see a production of The Fantasticks that lives up to its legend continues. Till then, despite its problems, the elegant and mostly-lovely Spreckels show is easily the best, most genuinely affecting production of this beloved musical I’ve seen.
The Fantasticks runs through Feb. 19 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Visit www.spreckelsonline.com for information.