THE FANTASTICKS, book and lyrics by Tom Jones; music by Harvey Schmidt; directed by John Neville Andrews; musical direction by Patricia Mathews; set and lighting by James D. Waring; costumes by Pamela Tomassetti.

With Terrence Currier, Jerry Whiddon, Dennis Martin, Karen Wald, David Bush, John Elko, Michael Nostrand, and William G. Clark.

"The Fantasticks" is a hardy perennial, blooming year after year and threatening to become the kudzu vine of musicals, useful and unstoppable. The latest Washington-area production of this endearing musical opened Tuesday night as the final production of Olney Theatre's summer season, in a show with competence but no sparkle.

With a cast of seven and an orchestra of half a dozen, a skeletal set made of one part scaffolding and two parts imagination, "The Fantasticks" needs talent more than money to produce. The score by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt makes up in complexity and sophistication what is eschewed in the other elements of the show.

The story is a love fable -- boy and girl fall in love, find that keeping the flame alive is harder than they thought, separate and experience "the world," and ultimately find each other again, sadder and wiser. "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow," sings the narrator-figure, El Gallo, in the opening song. The show is saved from extreme preciousness by the characters who surround the boy and girl and manipulate their lives -- the two fathers who fake a feud in order to make sure their children are attracted to one another, the dashing El Gallo, who stages a rape so that the boy can rescue the girl, and two itinerant actors, a dusty Shakespearean and his sidekick, an Indian who specializes in death scenes.

"The Fantasticks" has been playing in a small theater off-Broadway for 22 years. That's right, 22 years. It has become more than a show, it's an institution, like Agatha Christie's "Mousetrap" in London. There have been over 6,000 productions of the show, including 54 in foreign countries. On Sept. 15 the New York production will mark its 8,888th performance.

While it is of a style and subject that are for the most part timeless, there are unexpected elements of datedness about it now. One wonders, for example, if Jones and Schmidt would have written a paean to rape today, or whether the flower-childlike sensitivity that permeates the show would have been so pronounced.

But it is not the quaintness of the show that hampers Olney's production. With a show that requires panache, sparkle and crispness, director John Neville-Andrews' production has instead a muted effect, as though it were being played behind a scrim. The pace is slow, as is the tempo of the songs; the voices are slightly weak. With the exception of John Elko as the Shakespearean actor, the energy on stage is strangely low-key. Everyone says his lines very carefully, wringing every ounce of meaning out of them, losing some of the whimsy of the show.

But the score itself is still fabulous, wonderful songs like "Try to Remember," "I Can See It" and "They Were You." The music is the life breath of this confection, and while it is a pity that Karen Wald as The Girl, David Bush as The Boy and Jerry Whiddon as El Gallo do not possess stronger voices, they are capable. If some of Elko's panache were to rub off on the other performers, injecting them with a little oomph, the production might come to life.