With its smallish cast and minimal set demands, "The Fantasticks" seems an ideal musical choice for a community theater group. This certainly seems to be the case for the Burtonsville Players, whose remarkably polished production runs through June 26.
The play was written in the late '50s by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones). In truth, its age is showing. The plot is fairly simple: Neighboring fathers stage a feud, using reverse psychology to get their hormone-addled children to fall in love. Children being as contrary as they are, the plan works perfectly until the subterfuge is revealed. The Boy (that's what he's called in the program) runs off to see the big bad world while The Girl (ditto) stays home longing for forbidden romance. They each get what they wish for, only to realize they prefer the security of each other's arms. The end.
Unfortunately, writer Jones burdened this simple story with allegorical overtones and pseudo-avant-garde staging. The mix of theatrical traditions--Greek, Chinese, Elizabethan and commedia dell'arte--may have been daring 40 years ago; today it seems quaintly pretentious. The program suggests that the show can be taken on several levels but don't worry yourself with that. Just sit back and let the charming cast entertain you.
Entertain you they will. Director Linda Bartash has done a terrific job mining the play's comedic potential, and the actors are in fine voice. Anna Roberts is especially appealing as The Girl. She nails the dreamy petulance of a 16-year-old, with real sparkle and snap in her acting. Vocally, she didn't seem warmed up enough at the outset but soon gained confidence and handled some tricky musical passages with aplomb. As The Boy, Paul Scribner also has a lovely voice but could project a little better; there were times when he could barely be heard over the musical accompaniment.
The sound balance is, in fact, the production's greatest weakness. The acoustics in the space--a storefront in the Laurel Lakes Shopping Center--work against the actors. Although the "orchestra" consists of only a piano and harp, it was enough to drown out a couple of the weaker voices.
T.J. Cannady's was not one of them. Playing the dual role of The Narrator and bandit-for-hire El Gallo, Cannady has a rich, booming voice and affects an amusingly campy, Zorro-esque swagger. He has subtlety when needed, too; his rendition of the show's best-known song, "Try to Remember," is warm and delicate.
As The Girl's father, Stephen Welsh shows vaudevillian flair, but Patrick Ready, his parental counterpart, is less precise and tends to gesture wildly. (Ironically, his character orders The Boy to write "simplicity" 200 times as a punishment.) Philip Brandis, on the other hand, is wonderfully dry as The Actor, displaying the comic timing of a borscht belt veteran. Rounding out the cast are Ted Ying as The Indian and the slinky Elisa Rodero as The Wall.
The play's artsy trimmings are pure hooey, but at its core is an amusing--occasionally hilarious--show with some beautiful songs. In the capable hands of the Burtonsville Players, that makes for a delightful evening.
(If you attend the play on June 11, 12, 19 or 25, a second set of actors takes over all roles except The Boy and The Wall. However, if the producers have confidence enough to switch out the solid cast I saw, you can bet the alternates will be up to the task.)
"The Fantasticks" runs through June 26 at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a matinee at 2 p.m. June 20 at the Burtonsville Players Theatre, on Route 1 behind the Laurel Lakes Shopping Center, Laurel. Admission is $10. For reservations, call 301-617-9906.
CAPTION: Stephen Welsh, as The Girl's father, left, and Patrick Ready, as The Boy's father, entertain in "The Fantasticks."