Sometimes it takes magic to make magic, or at least such is the case with South Coast Repertory’s exhilarating, eye-popping new staging of The Fantasticks, a revival that even those who’d put the record-breaking off-Broadway smash on their list of least-favorite musicals can enjoy. (I know, as I am one of them.)

Even if, by some chance, you’ve never ever heard of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks (as a longtime South Coast Rep subscriber was overheard saying despite the show’s 42-year, 17,162-performance off-Broadway run), you doubtless know some 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.

fantpro3sm Even I must admit that there’s a quaint charm to The Fantasticks’ tale of young lovers Matt and Luisa tricked by their matchmaking fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy into falling in love precisely because of their dads’ supposed feud. Add to a that a mysterious narrator known as El Gallo, 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.

For this reviewer at least, the problem with The Fantasticks has been that without the magic that makes South Coast Rep’s big-stage production so magical, the musical can be rather a bore. Its two lovers are a generic pair with a love story that makes Maria and Captain Von Trapp’s seem positively acidic by comparison. Luisa’s dreams of “Much More” seem stuck way back in the Eisenhower ‘50s. (“I’d like to waste a week or two and never do a chore, to wear my hair unfastened so it billows to the floor.”) Add to that a particularly bizarre Act Two sequence in which Luisa sees Matt being tortured over and over, only to be told by El Gallo to “look through the mask,” upon which she sees life through rose-colored glasses again and again … and you’ve got a musical whose appeal I’ve never really understood.

fantpro6sm Enter director Amanda Dehnert, whose 2009 production at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage set the tale in an abandoned amusement park, turned El Gallo and The Mute into magicians, and decorated the whole affair in confetti and colored lights. It is this much-lauded revival that South Coast Rep has now imported, its scenic, costume, and illusion designers intact. With assistant director Matt Hawkins standing in for Dehnert and some of SoCal’s finest performers joining two of the production’s original DC cast members, South Coast Rep offers audiences the very best The Fantasticks they will ever see.

fantpro2sm The magic begins with the Overture, which has El Gallo and The Mute working as a sleight-of-hand team, eventually conjuring up the entire cast, whom we see transformed from shadow puppets to real-life humans right before our eyes. Bouquets of flowers and characters appear out of nowhere, Luisa vanishes only to reappear elsewhere seconds later in an entirely different costume, and in one of my favorite effects, a fistful of confetti and a hand-held fan combine to make cascades and cascades of either rain or snow. And did I mention there is swordplay?

fantpro1sm Performances are bewitching as befits all this magic, beginning with Perry Ojeda’s dangerously handsome, golden-throated El Gallo, singing “Try To Remember” with the best of them. Returning from a pair of previous Dehnert-directed productions of The Fantasticks as his assistant (and standing in for a particularly mobile Wall) is the boyishly cute and magically gifted Nate Dendy. Luisas don’t come any more enchanting than Addi McDaniel, another DC Fantasticks repeater, who returns to SCR from last year’s Cloudlands, also directed by Dehnert. As for her Matt, Anthony Carillo more than fulfills the romantic leading man promise he revealed in his memorable SoCal debut in The Light In The Piazza (which SCR will be bringing to the OC next year!) and last summer’s Legally Blonde and Sweeney Toddy down San Diego way. Gregory North and Scott Waara are perfectly mismatched as the supposed feuding Hucklebee and Bellomy, whether philosophizing about reverse psychology in “I’ll Never Say No” or waxing upon the difficulty of raising children vs. vegetables in “Plant A Radish.”

fantpro8sm Finally, South Coast Rep regulars are in for the treat of seeing SCR legends Richard Doyle and Hal Landon, Jr. as two of the most hilarious Henrys and Mortimers on record.

fantpro5sm Eugene Lee’s imaginative set design evokes the ghostlike magic of an abandoned amusement park midway, above which hangs a lighted sign proclaiming Rocky Point (the actual sign brought west from the real-life Rhode Island landmark). Jessica Ford’s colorful costumes further enhance the amusement park magic in one fantastic creation after another. As for Jim Steinmeyer’s illusion design, there would be no The Fantasticks à la Dehnert without his expertise at feats of legerdemain.

Adding their own contributions to the trio whose designs were first created for the 2009 Arena Stage production are local treasures Lap Chi Chu (lighting design) and Cricket S. Myers (sound design), the overall package making for a The Fantasticks that looks and sounds unlike any other you’ve seen before—and hallelujah for that.

fantpro4sm Sharon Jenkins choreographs with imagination and panache, while musical director extraordinaire Dennis Castellano conducts and plays keyboards for the splendid onstage three-piece band, joined by harpist Ellie Choate and percussionist Louis Allee—and when was the last time you saw a production built around piano, percussion, and harp?

Joshua Marchesi is production manager, Jennifer Ellen Butler stage manager, Jamie A. Tucker assistant stage manager, and Kimberly Colburn dramaturg. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Behind-the-scenes creative talents also include Alby Potts (assistant music director), Tristan Jeffers (associate scenic designer), Patrick Lynch (assistant scenic designer), Kate Poppen (costume design assistant), Amanda Zieve (assistant lighting designer), and Matt Glenn (assistant sound designer).

While the mystery of The Fantasticks’ record-breaking appeal may forever escape this reviewer, there is no mystery why it all comes together like magic at South Coast Repertory. This is one magical, mystical tour that even those who find The Fantasticks less than Fantastick are urged to take.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 22, 2013
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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