Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Fantasticks"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Joe Coyne

"The Fantasticks"

There is a curious paradox
That no one can explain
Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born out of winter's laboring pain
Or why we must all die a bit before we grow again.

From a shaky start in May of 1960, the current production (can you call it that after 42 years?) brought in at a cost of $16,500 ($98,000 in todays's dollars - CPI) was considered by some DOA. There were recommendations from "friends" to close the show on Opening Night after the New York Times and the Tribune gave the shows "mixed reviews."

Brooks Atkinson of the Times in a line he may have wanted back said, "Perhaps "The Fantasticks" is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures." As reviews go it was glowing in its praise of the vocal quality of the leads and labeled the cast, "thoroughbreds". Also . . ."sweet and fresh in a civilized manner" . . . "entrancing" . . . "acted with an artlessness that is winning" . . . "delightful" . . . "the music has grace and humor". Considering the reviews I have seen and written this was markedly better than mixed. The only negative against the acting, called attention to Thomas Bruce, not then known to be Tom Jones under an assumed name.

A great many actors passed through the show and on to "fame" some in the Sullivan Street Playhouse others in touring productions. In 1990 it was reported that over 11,000 productions had been produced offering roles to 88,000 actors. It is no doubt then some of them made it to fame. I found the most interesting name to be F. Murray Abraham in his New York City debut as the old Shakespearian actor, Henry. A Hallmark Hall of Fame television production in 1964 truncated the show and starred Ricardo Montalban and Bert Lahr. In 1970 the show's producer went on as a replacement for one of the fathers and it was 16 years before he gave up the part. Jerry Orbach was first of the 32 actors who played El Gallo, and has belatedly found popularity on "Law and Order" and as a voice over in "Beauty and the Beast."

With some of this in mind and knowing of the imminent closing, I attended an October performance on my through New York. Paul Blankenship who has played Matt and The Mute was playing El Gallo with one of the weakest voices I had ever heard in the role. He has commented on how difficult it was for him to return to the role after September 11th with the acquired meaning the songs had taken on. The theater is several blocks from Ground Zero area and never again would the lyrics have the same meaning for him.

Try to remember the kind of September
when love was slow and oh so mellow

It is September
Before a rainfall

Without a hurt the heart is hollow

Blankenship had been with the production that toured Japan in 1990 and it may have been a very off evening for him.

The rest of the cast was up to form and recreated the magic. It was Heather Spore as Luisa who gave the wonderful impression that her lines were being spoken for the first time and she had just that moment seen the words pop into her head. Once I was within the theater, New York and its problems fell away and I only saw a delightful story of parents staging a feud in order to manipulate their children into falling in love: a temporal love that dissipates as the world calls each of the lovers to explore what else is available. A bit comic silliness, a lot of inventive simple effects, a timeless parable resulting in a memorable story. Magic in its effect. The character I find intriguing and spend my time watching is The Mute: no lines and so prescient.

If anyone was able to produce such a musical this next weekend, it would break the record of longest running musical in 2044. At that time I would be 100 years old and I doubt if I would be around to see it. Most of the audience in the Sullivan Street Playhouse the other evening were not born when the show opened. Many of them were seeing it again.

I have since tried to place May 3, 1960 into some reality perspective to measure the length of 42 years. Since I would have been a youthful 16 years old and interested in other things, most of the moments below come from the New York Times of that week. Maybe these will help.
- Ted Williams was playing his final year for the Red Sox very injured. At year's end he was batting .316 and had hit 29 home runs, the famous one on his last at bat at the Old Fenway Park
- Harry Truman announced that while he was willing to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, he could not assure his vote would be cast for Missouri's favorite son, Stuart Symington. This while Kennedy and Humphrey were fighting it out in the West Virginia primary
- back the Red Sox and sports: Don Buddin and Pete Runnels were leading the league in batting (.333) and with the season just underway: the Red Sox were in fifth place. The Sox would end the season in 7th place, 32 games behind the New York Yankees
- the mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt was thinking of running for Chancellor of Germany (West)
- Brooks Brothers was selling bow ties for $2.50 - Chanel #5 was $7.50 for a 1/4 ounce and the New York Times were advertising girdles as an essential undergarment
- Tavern on the Green had a $5 special on Mother's Day with all the trimmings
- "Fiorello" was announced as the Pulitzer winning play for the year and the best seat for "Fininan's Rainbow" on Broadway was a princely $3.95
- Caryl Chessman was executed in California

And what were Word Baker and Lore Noto up to? Respectively they were directing and producing "The Fantasticks." Word Baker was another Texan and Lore Noto was an enterprising producer. Noto's only previous show aptly named, "The Failures" had lasted one performance. With Jones and Schmidt, they stayed with the show and its early struggles. It has endured along with its magic.

Enough of historical snapshots, "The Fantasticks" lives in each production and the story informs with its simplicity in so many bits and pieces of many of our lives. We humor with the fathers, with the girl's self absorption, the boy's conceit, with the truth so scenic and cynic.

A moment of personal history. The exhilaration of a play's effect can lead you to undertake strange actions and when I saw the play for the second time maybe 12 years ago, I was humming themes when from a pay phone on Sullivan Street after the show, I called an old girl friend suggesting once again we get back together. I was in, "that special place where once . . . love was sweeter than the berries." As she had not seen the play and was not waxing euphoric, she strongly suggested that I stay the hell out of her life. I did not say it had a happy ending, but some dozen years later we are again talking.

"The Fantasticks" was always my fall back ticket if I was in New York. I am saddened as I don't think it will be possible to find a replacement.

Joe Coyne

"The Fantasticks" (till January 13, 2002)
Sullivan Street Theatre
181 Sullivan Street
New York, New York

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