When the best-known of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s musicals ended its off-Broadway run ten years ago, the New Yorker marked its closing with (what else?) a cartoon. In it, an elderly couple sit reading the news, one of them glancing up to remark deadpan to the other, “We missed ‘The Fantasticks,’” a sly dig on folks who put off seeing a show so long that they end up missing it entirely, and in the case of The Fantasticks, that meant a record-breaking 42-year, 17,162-performance postponement.

 Theatre West now celebrates the tenth anniversary of The Fantasticks’ 2002 closing with a revival that, although generally well-performed, does little to explain to this reviewer what kept The Fantasticks running nonstop for over four decades.

Yes, two of its songs, “Try To Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” have become standards covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Ed Ames to Harry Belafonte to Duke Ellington to Gladys Knight & The Pips, and gems like “I Can See It” and “They Were You” have undoubtedly inspired many a listen to the Original Cast Recording.

There’s also a quaint charm to The Fantasticks’ tale of young lovers Matt and Luisa tricked by their matchmaking fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy into believing they are falling in love despite the disapproval of their supposedly feuding dads.

 Add to that a pair of a pair of ancient actors straight out of a Fractured Fairytale and a character known only as “The Mute” and you have the makings of an entertaining chamber musical, but one whose original run managed to span the Presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush?

Fans of the Original Cast Recording will notice that the controversial use of “rape” to refer to a phony kidnapping concocted by Hucklebee and Bellomy and executed by “actors” Henry and Mortimer has been axed in its currently licensed form in favor of the more politically correct—and accurate—“abduction” (or in cases where a one-syllable substitute proves necessary, by “raid”). Theatre West also inserts a refreshingly contemporary “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” when Hucklebee and Bellomy are momentarily suspected of being a couple. Despite these minor alterations, however, the Charlie Mount-directed revival takes a play-it-safe approach.

 A charming Molly Reynolds sings gloriously as Luisa and lanky USC Trojan Joey Jennings proves positively irresistible as Matt, his own pipes rich and resonant with a bit of vibrato. Steve Nevil and Roger Kent Cruz recall classic B&W film duos like Laurel and Hardy in their droll comedic turns as Hucklebee and Bellomy. Odd couple Yancey Dunham and Don Moss are a hoot as a couple of old coots.

El Gallo fares not so well. Though I enjoyed Lukas Bailey’s quirky, swashbuckling take on the show’s Narrator hired by Matt and Luisa’s fathers to stage the “abduction” formerly known as rape, it was clear from the first notes of the show-opening “Try To Remember” that although the role of El Gallo ought to go to The Fantasticks’ strongest vocalist, at Theatre West, the opposite proves unfortunately to be the case.

 The role of The Mute goes to Lee Meriwether, still stunning fifty-seven years after being crowned Miss America of 1955, but wasted in the part. Whether posing as The Wall built by Hucklebee and Bellomy to convince their offspring of their enmity, or handing props to cast members, or building a new wall in dully repetitive pantomime, Meriwether is given little to do by director Mount other than stand around and look silver-haired and regal in a leaf-adorned green gown.

There are a several nicely choreographed sequences, though no choreographer receives program credit. Graham Jackson gets high marks as musical director, the cast performing unamplified to live piano and drums accompaniment. Jeff G. Rack’s set design is justly fanciful as are the productions uncredited costume designs. Cast member Dunham’s lighting design is colorful and varied. Eliott Schwartz is assistant director and stage manager.

 Audience reaction on opening night varied from cheers to polite applause. I enjoyed much of Theatre West’s production of The Fantasticks, but I can’t say that it made me want to see the musical again. For this reviewer at least, the mystery of The Fantasticks’ record-breaking appeal remains largely unsolved.

Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 31, 2012
Photos: Thomas Mikusz

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