Beating the Odds

Fine performances save 'The Fantasticks' despite nonsensical material.

During Gary Gisselman's 1980s tenure as Arizona Theatre Company's artistic director, the company too often offered very good productions of plays in which thick layers of pretension surrounded a hollow intellectual core (the worst being a godawful thing by a writer for St. Elsewhere, author and title now mercifully forgotten, that had Wendy Lehr tramping through the jungle, obsessed by manioc and eggbeaters). Well, it's just like old times now that ATC is running a lovely, lively version of the popular but inept The Fantasticks.

The musical opened in a tiny off-Broadway theater in 1960 and managed to stay there for 42 years. It somehow became one of those shows that tourists felt they must see when they visited New York, just as they made an obligatory pilgrimage to Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap in London or The Thing on Interstate 10. The popular assumption is that something must be good if it can just hang on long enough, like Jerry Lewis or the Ford administration.

The sad truth is that The Fantasticks may merit the occasional high school revival, but its Harvey Schmidt songs, with one major exception, have all the staying power of Chinese take-out, and its repetitive, self-consciously arty/artless verse dialog by Tom Jones (not the pop singer) is clunky when it bothers to make any sense at all. The Fantasticks fails to measure up to its sources and models (a freakish combination of Edmond Rostand, commedia dell'arte, Luigi Pirandello, Thornton Wilder and Voltaire), and is overshadowed by the merest laundry list by the one good Broadway figure for whom it paved the way, Stephen Sondheim.

True, 40 years ago The Fantasticks was reasonably innovative by the standards of musicals. On a minimal set and openly acknowledging the presence of the audience, two fathers fake a feud, using reverse psychology to make their kids fall in love. It works, thanks also to a feigned abduction involving a handsome Hispanic bandit called El Gallo (originally Jerry Orbach, if you can believe it) and two over-the-hill Shakespearian hams, one of whom specializes in convulsive death scenes. At the end of Act 1, it looks like everyone will live happily ever after, but Act 2 proves otherwise. The young lovers immediately grow bored and restless. The boy goes off in search of adventure, only to return beaten and chastened. The girl falls under the spell of El Gallo, who teaches her to observe the world through a mask of joy that suppresses all compassion. Then he absconds with her most prized possession. The young lovers are reunited, now stripped of their idealism and prepared to survive a cruel world together. "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow," El Gallo sings in the show's one hit, "Try to Remember."

Oh, and there's a mime who pretends to be a wall and looks just like Ladmo, a character in an old children's TV show out of Phoenix.

It appears pretty sophisticated on paper. Trouble is, the execution is just dumb and, except for "Try to Remember," you've got to try hard to remember any of the other songs.

Also, exactly the same thing had been done with infinitely more panache and a superb score in 1956, under the title Candide, and employing some estimable talent: Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, John Latouche, Richard Wilbur, Tyrone Guthrie and even Dorothy Parker. But that show's ruins were ripe for pillaging, having collapsed after 73 performances; critics called Candide "clumsy" and "pretentious and freighted with allegory and symbol." Well, The Fantasticks got that part right. It also stole the concept of a naive prodigal son barely making it alive back into the arms of his sullied beloved, and, by setting its action in a garden obsessively tended by the fathers, appropriated Candide's climactic metaphor: "We're neither pure nor wise nor good," sings Candide. "We'll do the best we know ... and make our garden grow."

Even if people had forgotten Candide by 1960, within a few years they'd be seeing a string of witty, unsentimental, well-crafted shows by Stephen Sondheim revolving around disillusion, betrayal, manipulation, loneliness, insecurity and experiences that, to put it optimistically, build character. The Fantasticks had been superceded, but refused to go away.

And now here it is at ATC in a production that works very hard to make you believe you're not wasting two hours of your life.

Although Lynette Knapp was booked to play Luisa, the girl, this incredibly annoying ingénue role was taken on opening night by understudy Julia Tilley. A wonderful Ado Annie in the UA's production of Oklahoma! (which closes this weekend), Tilley brought exactly the right combination of innocence, exuberance and teen self-regard to the part of Luisa. As Luisa's love interest, Matt, Timothy Fitz-Gerald was likeable, which is saying a lot.

Norman Large and Frank Kopyc played the fathers with all the requisite irascibility and veiled affection. El Gallo is the only part with much substance, and it almost allowed Danny Bolero to display range and nuance, although director David Ira Goldstein seems to have instructed him to play down the character's more sinister aspects. Still, Bolero was as complex and intriguing as the material allowed.

These were all strong singers, in their various genres. But the three non-singing actors made equally fine impressions. Carmen Yurich was a very sympathetic Mute (the guy playing the wall); too bad Goldstein couldn't use him even more prominently. The real scene-stealers were Apollo Dukakis and Eric Ray Anderson as the seedy thespians, Dukakis bellowing half-remembered Shakespeare and Anderson belching his way through death-by-pratfall. And when they lured Fitz-Gerald off to a month of iniquity, one had visions of J. Worthington Foulfellow and Gideon leading Pinocchio away to discover the pleasures and terrors of the world.

Fine performances and estimable production values (far greater than this self-consciously simple show requires) save ATC's participants from the fate that so easily befalls others who stage The Fantasticks, the same fate that befell Pinocchio on the Island of Lost Boys: looking like an ass.

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