Sometimes a corny, old-fashioned, totally out-of-date musical can charm you right out of your boots and remind you, once again, why the theater — for you at least — has always been such a magical place. You never know what wizardry is going to come at you from across the footlights.
Such a musical is “The Fantasticks,” that old chestnut that played non-stop off-Broadway from 1960 to 2002 and has recently been given a sparkling new revival at UCLA’s Freud Theater as the last Reprise production of their 2009 season. This production, directed by Reprise Theatre Company’s new artistic director, Jason Alexander, stars Eric McCormack (best known as Will of TV’s “Will & Grace”) as the swashbuckling El Gallo. McCormack, who has an extraordinarily fine voice, cuts a dashing figure with his neatly trimmed moustache and beard and his skin-tight leather pants. Who knew he was such a hunk?
Like the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” El Gallo’s role is to explain to the audience what is going on, in addition to imparting to the two young lovers his cynical view of the world. He starts off, however, singing his beautiful tribute to youth and young love, “Try to Remember,” and urges those who remember those halcyon days to follow him into the real world to experience the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
The enchanted young lovers, Matt (Lucas Grabeel) and Luisa (Alison Woods) have grown up living next door to each other and have fallen in love despite the fact that their families have been feuding forever and have even constructed a wall between their properties to preclude all contact between them. Here Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Harvey Schmidt, who wrote the music, have borrowed from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as well as from Edmond Rostand’s “The Romancers.” (Rostand, you will remember, is also the author of the better-known “Cyrano de Bergerac.”)
In the case of “The Fantasticks,” however, the “family feud” is a sham concocted by the fathers to motivate their children to fall in love, on the assumption that children will always do what their parents have forbidden them to do. In this Reprise version, Luisa’s father is played by a sprightly Harry Groener, but Matt’s father has been transmogrified into his mother, a frumpy, no-nonsense Eileen T’Kaye. Together they perform two show-stopping numbers: “Never Say No” and later, with El Gallo, as they plot an unlikely abduction scenario, “It Depends on What You Pay.”
By the second act, disenchantment has set in and the two young lovers have begun to doubt their feelings. Matt is feeling hemmed in and deprived of the adventures he had wanted to seek. Moreover, he recognizes Luisa for the “spoiled little princess” that she is. She, on the other hand, is regretting having made a commitment at such a young age. Both of them need a little maturing and ripening, and so they separate to pursue their dreams.
It’s a foregone conclusion, of course, that it will all turn out well in the end (no spoiler alert here!), but first each of the young lovers goes through a period of darkness and despair, guided by El Gallo and his two wacky accomplices. Those two (Barry Dennen and Hap Lawrence) are itinerant actors: the former a rag-tag Shakespearean malapropper, the latter a man whose sole talent is dramatic death scenes. (In fact, he is listed in the program as “The Man Who Dies.”)
Rounding out this assortment of fantasy characters is Kimberly Mikesell as The Mute, a speechless sprite who flits around the stage silently introducing and enhancing the action. Mikesell is a lovely ballerina, and her delicate dances are like whispered poetry.
“The Fantasticks” at the Freud Theatre, like the original version that played for 42 uninterrupted years at New York’s Sullivan Theatre, takes place on a small stage with a minimum of props. In the current production the set is designed by Bradley Kaye, augmented by expressive lighting designed by Driscoll Otto and droll costuming by Kate Bergh.
All in all, a thoroughly delightful production.
As a P.S., I would remind you that the man who first played El Gallo, back in 1960 was a terrific Broadway song-and-dance man named Jerry Orbach. His long career as an actor, however, is probably best remembered for his 12 years as the tough-talking detective Lennie Briscoe on TV’s “Law and Order.” He died in 2004, but during a 2007 revival of “The Fantasticks” a small off-Broadway theater in the Times Square neighborhood was named for him.
A fitting tribute to a much-loved actor and the wonderful musical he introduced.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.