Theater Review: Arena Stage's 'The Fantasticks'

Bubbling: Sebastian La Cause, top, Timothy Ware and Addi McDaniel in
Bubbling: Sebastian La Cause, top, Timothy Ware and Addi McDaniel in "The Fantasticks." (Scott Suchman)
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By Peter Marks
Monday, November 30, 2009

A delightful holiday package is waiting for you on U Street. The contents are not new, exactly. Yet they have been reconditioned to conceal the telltale signs of age and yield a diversion that feels fresh and alive again.

The beguiling bundle is Arena Stage's revival of "The Fantasticks," the sweet, piquant 1960 musical whose original incarnation ran off-Broadway for 17,162 performances, a record unlikely ever to be equaled. Retaining its bouquet of tender ballads by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones -- "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You" among them -- the show is a bubbling stream in an era of thundering rivers.

Take the kids and help open their ears to simple treasures.

The added value at Lincoln Theatre, one of Arena's temporary homes as its headquarters in Southwest Washington gets its own makeover, is that director Amanda Dehnert and her design team have upped the theatricality of the piece in an elegant manner. Riffing on a central idea in this musical fable -- that the illusions of romance must be punctured before real love can develop -- Dehnert weaves in a veritable sideshow's worth of relevant magic tricks, smoothly executed by the evening's major domo, El Gallo (Sebastian La Cause) and his ubiquitous assistant, the Mute (Nate Dendy).

Bare-bones charm

You do dress up "The Fantasticks" at your peril. The show, with its cheeky references to Shakespeare and touches of commedia dell'arte, is so bare-bones it could be done in your basement; within the dingy confines of Greenwich Village's Sullivan Street Playhouse, where it ran for so many years, the musical looked as if it were. It worked for a variety of reasons, one being the unadorned charms of the production meshing so touchingly with the unsullied emotions of the score.

Dehnert does not stray unreasonably from the work's guiding aesthetic: She and set designer Eugene Lee now situate "The Fantasticks" in the ruins of a midway, with the name of an amusement park emblazoned in intermittently reliable light bulbs above the stage. It's a place where the magic has gone away -- a persuasive context for the story of Matt (Timothy Ware) and Luisa (Addi McDaniel), young lovers whose innocence is obliterated in the harsh light of day.

The concept does not upstage Schmidt and Jones's handiwork. With its fairy-tale mechanics and sometimes purple poetry -- remember, the show grew up in the age of the beatniks, in the Village -- "The Fantasticks" can become, in too-precious treatments, as gooey as a bowl of melted gummy bears. Its view of the roles of men and women is a mite antique, too: Some may be puzzled, for instance, by Luisa's having to insist in song that "I want much more than keeping house."

Sleight of hand

Transported to the dilapidated carnival grounds, however, the story rests comfortably on the precipice of the fanciful. And the tricks, by illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer and magic consultant Jeff Grow, reinforce the idea that the events are being manipulated by forces invisible to Matt and Luisa but discernible to the rest of us.

Schmidt and Jones wanted "The Fantasticks" to both celebrate and satirize romance, to have an audience remember youthful passion even as it laughs about the absurd places passion leads us. Their goal is achieved in Dehnert's production, thanks to a cast assembled as much for its comedic skill as its musicality. (The exemplary accompaniment of the four-piece band led by George Fulginiti-Shakar plays a vital part, too.)

Out of the story's Every-couple, Ware and McDaniel accomplish their own impressive trick, avoiding the pitfalls of generic characterization and imbuing Matt and Luisa with dynamic, impetuous personalities. When these two sing with hormones simmering in "Metaphor," you understand completely how and why they have fallen into each other's arms.

McDaniel's rendition of Luisa's challenging anthem, "Much More," is a dewy triumph, and Ware evinces an appealing forthrightness in "I Can See It," his duet with La Cause's El Gallo. They're supplemented splendidly by Michael Stone Forrest and Jerome Lucas Harmann as Matt and Luisa's conspiratorial fathers, who know their way around a soft-shoe as expertly as they do their beloved backyard gardens.

A minor miracle, meanwhile, has been worked with the role of Henry, the old actor whom El Gallo recruits for his staged abduction of Luisa. Henry can come across a time-killing bore. But Laurence O'Dwyer, portraying him as a dotty pool of clueless narcissism, is downright sublime, a revelation. You'll crave an encore. As his sidekick Mortimer, the specialist in dying scenes, Jesse Terrill demonstrates his comedic acumen has been a mightily underused asset on the city's stages.

Although La Cause's slighter delivery of "Try to Remember" will not erase the memory of Jerry Orbach's peerless version on the original cast recording, the actor manages to bring a difficult part admirably down to earth; he's a first-rate dancing El Gallo, too. And the adroit Dendy proves that silence on a stage indeed can be golden.

It's a nice surprise, seeing how well Dehnert's staging shows off Schmidt's and Jones's wares, and receiving confirmation that "The Fantasticks" need not be a disappearing act.

The Fantasticks

Music by Harvey Schmidt, book and lyrics by Tom Jones. Directed by Amanda Dehnert. Choreography, Sharon Jenkins; lighting, Nancy Schertler; music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar; costumes, Jessica Ford; sound, Timothy J. Thompson; fight choreography, Craig Handel. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Jan. 10 at Arena Stage at Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Visit or call 202-488-3300.

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