"The Fantasticks" used to be one of the world's perfect, small musicals. Now it's a lounge act.
The production that opened last night at Wolf Trap, starring Robert Goulet -- and make no mistake about that -- preserves the glorious music, and the simple morality tale that makes up the plot. But instead of a few chairs and boxes and scarves, a cast of eight and an orchestra of what, three? we have scenery that runs around the stage, neon lights, a full orchestra and a chorus of eight.
Goulet looks great and sings wonderfully -- but he apparently hasn't noticed this is supposed to be a play, in which he should be portraying a character. Bob -- may we call you Bob? Listen, have you thought about what kind of guy this El Gallo is? He's the man who holds it all together, who manipulates the young lovers with a touch of cynicism, and reminds the audience to "celebrate sensation," to remember poetry and love. He does not have to work the room.
When a show has been running 30 years, as this one has off-Broadway, it's awfully risky to try to reinvent it for a larger stage, filling in what was evidently perceived to be blank spaces with more activity and sound. This is a show that foreshadowed the '60s sensibility; it was perfect for flower children (and their parents) who saw in its story the triumph of both the urge to break loose from familial constraints and the return to, well, the girl next door. The bare-bones nature of the production was part of it -- even after its long run made all the investors and creators Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones wealthy. There was an anti-Broadway feel to it that, in fact, belied the complexity of the score and the skill required to do justice to its songs.
Could that production, designed for an audience of a couple of hundred, have been transplanted successfully to a house of several thousand as at Wolf Trap? Maybe not. But as one watched the parade of superfluous persons and scenery in this new "Fantasticks" for the '90s, the images and moments that held were the original ones.
Here's what happens in the plot: Matt and Luisa, 20 and 16 respectively, live next door to each other and are in love. To further the romance, their fathers pretend to disapprove, ultimately hiring El Gallo to stage a scene in which Matt can rescue Luisa and the fathers can thus give their blessing to the union. In the second act, the lovers discover that love stales quickly; each seeks adventure elsewhere and finds misery instead. They reunite, chastened and wiser.
Why now the chorus of eight? They look like refugees from "Sesame Street," all cutesy suspenders and billed caps, and they have nothing to do except get in the way and give extra work to the understudies. In the fight scene, for example, in which El Gallo and two down-and-out actor characters somehow simulated an abduction and a huge battle, there is now a flock of people in red capes waving swords. Thus Henry and Mortimer -- always and still hilarious caricatures of the theatrical ham -- now seem superfluous, their job upstaged. Using the chorus to hum behind the main voices is equally unnecessary, sweetening confections that already have plenty of sugar.
One of the amazing virtues of "The Fantasticks" was that it somehow managed -- and still does, even here -- to skirt sentimentality. Whatever sappiness is there is held up for inspection, acknowledged and put in its place. But adding a lot of violins to the orchestrations dilutes that clear sensibility.
There are two new songs -- at least there were last night. The first, as advertised, is the politically correct version of the old Rape Ballet. It is now called "Abductions (And So Forth)," and while one applauds the sensitivity that precluded Schmidt and Jones from carrying on with the former ode to rape, the song just isn't as great. It's not bad, though, and we'll get used to it.
The second was not listed in the program, so its title can only be guessed at: "This Is the Perfect Time to Be in Love." It sounds like a song written for Robert Goulet, not the show. It is lush and romantic and would probably be great in some other musical.
One other thing that has happened in bringing "The Fantasticks" to the big top is that the tempo of all the songs has been slowed down considerably, presumably so all the words can be heard by all the people. It also gives Big Bob a lot of great, full stretches of song, and they are certainly terrific.
The other singers are wonderful too, even when they have to sing with Goulet standing over them on a higher stage. Glory Crampton captures the fey Luisa, and Neil Nash partners her well, despite his tendency to adopt Goulet's laid-back style (which does not work well when he's supposed to be angry and rebellious). Ralston Hill and Gerry Vichi play the fathers as the clever buffoons they should be, and James Valentine hogs out in his portrait of the aging ham. James Cook is the Man Who Dies, and does. Very well.
The Fantasticks, written and directed by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, scenery and costumes by Ed Wittstein, lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger, musical direction by John Visser, choreography by Janet Watson, orchestrations by Jack Elliott; with Robert Goulet, James Cook, Rudy Hogenmiller, Glory Crampton, Neil Nash, Ralston Hill, Gerry Vichi, James Valentine, Susan Bachman, Terry Baughan, Paul Blankenship, Marie-Laurence Danvers, Jaime Zee Eisner, James Harms, Dale O'Brien, Dan Shaheen and Scott Willis. At Wolf Trap through Sept. 5.