Whenever I think of “The Fantasticks,” the first thing that comes to mind is the TV series “Law and Order.” This is not a sophisticated theatrical allusion, I confess, but Jerry Orbach — who made his first big career splash in 1960 playing the pivotal role of El Gallo in the show off-Broadway — has parked himself permanently in my brain at the synaptical intersection of “Fantasticks” and “What I Think.” And good for him. He hit it big as a Broadway icon, then made a ton of dough on network TV, thus spending his old age in style rather than in a fourth-floor walkup off Ninth Avenue with a bathtub in the kitchen.
The second, and much more relevant, thing I think of in regards to this classic musical is the word skimpy. Say “Fantasticks” and I think of a tiny stage, a ratty little theater, a few desultory props and a whole lot of imagination required on the part of the audience. Minimalism can be a lofty artistic ambition, but it can also mean sparse and low-budget. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never warmed to the show in the way I feel I should. In my mental picture of the experience, I worry about a piece of the ceiling falling on me.
All of this is a somewhat long-winded explanation as to why I so much admire the look and feel of the new StageWorks Fresno production of “The Fantasticks,” which continues at the Fresno Art Museum through April 22. Rather than give us another bare-bones experience in which you could fit the whole company plus set and costume in a VW bus, director J. Daniel Herring offers a handsome, substantial production that sparkles.
In this version, Herring imagines the players as 1930s circus performers. The small stage of the museum’s Bonner Auditorium becomes the red-and-white flaps of a circus tent, with the center pole planted firmly in the audience’s sight line. It’s easy to figure out the circus identities of the main characters: Luisa and Matt, the young lovers, are tightrope walkers. The two fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, are clowns. And El Gallo, who also acts as narrator, is the ringmaster.
The result is an elegant, sturdy feel to the material. The circus aesthetic here can be gaudy and flighty but also have a melancholic tinge. There are times when “The Fantasticks,” with its story of idealized love that sags under the weight of the real world, is as sad as the heartbroken fact of The Mute, the omnipresent player who broadcasts his emotions like he’s flipping on a light switch. And yet there is frivolity as well, as bright and shockingly colored as the clown outfits. (Joel C. Abels designed the clever set and lively costumes.)
Besides the exemplary production design — Dan and Dejay Aldape’s gorgeous lights and overall electrical ingenuity give the show a top-notch professional sheen — a handful of stellar performances elevate the material.
First and foremost is Terry Lewis as El Gallo. His “Try to Remember,” the show’s standout song, is one of my favorite moments from him over his long local theater career. Striking a solid stance, with the padded shoulders of his red ringmaster uniform giving him a generalissimo flair, he delivers the song with a minimum of movement and a maximum of emotional impact.
Meg Clark, as Luisa, who falls in love with the “boy next door,” is graceful and charming. Her voice is an exercise in carefree lightness, but she’s able in the darker second act to connect with her character’s more robust and complicated underpinnings. The two fathers (a jovial Abels and playful Mark Standriff) are a polished pair and expert comic relief.
Aaron Lowe, as Matt, who wants nothing more than to be with Luisa forever, offers adequate vocals, but the romantic spark he brings to the relationship never got into open-flame territory at the opening-night performance I attended. (And then, when Matt gets what he wants, he promptly decides that Luisa isn’t enough, and he’d rather travel the world instead. I’ve never quite understood why they couldn’t go together.)
Greg Ruud, as Henry, the doddering veteran actor, is a blustery delight. And Logan Cooley continues to impress me in every role I see him in. He brings a fierce, in-the-moment vacuousness (not an easy thing to pull off) to the role of Mortimer, the acting sidekick. And Steven Weatherbee is excellent as The Mute. I’d never quite realized how expressive his face can be until it’s amplified by bright red lipstick and white mime makeup. His “sad” expression could make puppies cry.
Through it all, live music adds the air of spontaneity and warmth a production like this needs, with Tim Fletcher (musical director and accompanist) and Laura Porter (on harp) delivering on all counts. (My only criticism is the loudness of the piano, with some of the crashing chords overpowering the singers.)
There are aspects of “The Fantasticks” that still feel overwrought to me even after seeing this charming production. The song “Round and Round,” in which Luisa and El Gallo take a whirlwind allegorical trip through the depravity of the human psyche, still strikes me as bargain-rate profundity slapped together in a “hey, we’re deep!” package. I suspect it has made vastly more audience members wince over the years than experience any kind of philosophical revelation.
But I also get the simplicity of the story and the universal draw of these Commedia dell’arte-inspired stock players. With its particular aesthetic, this StageWorks production has a suggestion of faded grandeur, which is all too appropriate. (Even circuses are out of fashion these days.) Life inevitably gets more complicated as it progresses, and it’s remarkable to think about all the people in our lives at different places on their own journeys, each one on some version of the Luisa-and-Matt odyssey.
As Jerry Orbach (and now Terry Lewis) used to sing in “Try to Remember,” the sentiment is simple: Without a hurt the heart is hollow. That’s what gives “The Fantasticks” its sweet ache.
“The Fantasticks,” through April 22, Bonner Auditorium, Fresno Art Museum. Tickets are $25-$28.
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