“The Fantasticks” is a marvel of a musical – and if you somehow have managed to avoid seeing it over the last four decades, this Interplayers production would make a fine introduction.
This simple, romantic show is a true American original, and like other American originals (say, Bob Dylan or “Huckleberry Finn”) it seems quirky and uncalculated and sometimes odd. It has, just for starters, a number called the “Rape Ballet” (although it’s a “literary rape,” not a real one).
The show’s sheer eccentricity makes the play’s long-running success and timeless appeal even more of a marvel. The Interplayers version, directed with simplicity and intelligence by Roger Welch, is easily one of the better versions I’ve seen.
For one thing, it is well-cast. Interplayers has found an ideal El Gallo/Narrator in John Frazier, a Chicago actor who has performed with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Right at the beginning, Frazier sets the tone for the show, both literally and figuratively, with a pensive and well-sung version of “Try to Remember.” His baritone voice is unaffected, pleasing and, to use a phrase from the song, oh so mellow.
He also knows how to deliver a deadpan comic line, as when asked why he no longer rides a white charger.
“I developed a saddle rash,” he said with dignity. “It was quite painful.”
The show also boasts an endearing pair of fathers (The Girl’s Father and The Boy’s Father).
Patrick Treadway and Troy Nickerson are two of Spokane’s theatrical treasures, and they work together here like a musical Laurel and Hardy. Their two songs together, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish,” are a showcase of their skills in phrasing, movement and timing.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better man to play The Actor/Henry than Jack Bannon, who is from Coeur d’Alene but has an extensive Hollywood and theatrical background.
Bannon clearly relishes the role of an aging, pompous actor in pantaloons.
His readings of mangled Shakespeare are all the funnier because of his deep, rich theatrical voice.
Damon Curtis Mentzer and Christopher Bange both show off their considerable clowning skills as Mortimer and The Mute, respectively.
Louis Olsen and Theresa Kelly, as Matt and Luisa, seem a bit callow compared with the rest of the company, yet that is not much of a flaw because these characters are intended to be callow.
Welch’s staging of the play reinforces both its simplicity and its sense of magic. The Mute seems always to be hovering unobtrusively above the action, sprinkling various forms of fairy dust on the players. The “swordfights” are conducted with a wink and a wooden stick, yet we still believe something is at stake.
Overall, Welch never goes for cheap laughs or gags – which makes it funny in the best and most intelligent way.
This production also brings out the ancient theatrical roots of the play. It is, in essence, a modernization of the old French harlequinade comedies in which two young lovers have to outwit a pompous father.
“The Fantasticks” has echoes of many of theater’s ancient stock characters – the Buffoon, the Pantaloon and the Harlequin.
At one point, The Boy’s Father even refers to himself as a Pantaloon.
Authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt chose to give their characters generic names (The Boy, The Girl, the Actor, etc.) in addition to real names partly because they wanted to tap into those venerable traditions.
These characters are not just individuals but also archetypes that are planted in our cultural memories.
“The Fantasticks” may be an American original, but its European roots are deep.