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Review: 'The Fantasticks' at Reprise Theatre Company

May 7, 2009 |  2:00 pm


For better or worse (mostly worse), Reprise Theatre Company has given “The Fantasticks,” “the world’s longest-running musical,” a glamorous makeover.

This shoestring charmer, a precursor to “Pippin” in its blissful celebration of playful parables and openly theatrical storytelling, is now awash in diaphanous flounce and pastel lighting. It also has plenty of onstage legroom for its two most recognizable stars, Eric McCormack (forever associated with “Will & Grace”) and Lucas Grabeel (Ryan Evans in the “High School Musical” chain), to limber up their musical-comedy muscles. In truth, the show has probably never looked so stylish and grand — or so gosh-darn old, like a dotty great-aunt all dolled up in the latest finery.

Seen from the wrong angle, even a spry, unpretentious and determinedly jaunty musical will reveal its crow’s feet. But when Jason Alexander's production, which opened Wednesday at the Freud Playhouse, doesn’t strive for anything more than a delightful innocence, it’s possible to detect what kept audiences coming back to that Greenwich Village hole in the wall where this simple and direct heart-tug of a show played for more than 17,000 performances, beginning in 1960.

A few years after the musical finally closed at New York’s Sullivan Street Playhouse in 2002, an off-Broadway revival was born. Seems as if audiences just can’t do without the cherished opening number that Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote for their musical baby, “Try to Remember” — so what if the catch is that you’ll have to sit for two hours before hearing the song reprised at the end. This looking back at first love in all its fevered rush and abashed immaturity sets an effective sentimental trap for audiences, which get to have their nostalgia and their youthful romantic thrills too.

Fant222 I’ve not been one of those repeat “Fantasticks” offenders, racking up visits with the regularity of bank holidays, as so many of the show’s fans have proudly done over the decades. I thought I heard a man sitting behind me at the Freud confess that he has seen the musical more than 50 times. I have only a dim adolescent memory of the original production, but an obviously essential part of the storied longevity was the chance to stumble down a magic rabbit hole with a company that didn't let its paltry budget crimp its imaginative freedom.

The Reprise production’s chief asset is Grabeel, whose fawn-like presence and unselfconscious commitment are exactly what’s needed for the role of Matt, the boy in love with Luisa (Alison Woods), the girl next door. Neither Matt nor Luisa has any clue that the wall that has been built between their homes is part of a “Romeo and Juliet” ruse their parents have cooked up to get the kids to fall in love with each other. Grabeel, with his side part, preppy vest and wagging knit tie, brings out the sympathetic naivete of a character who expects each chapter of his life to leave him even more agog.

Jones’ book, based on “Les Romanesques” by Edmond Rostand, begins with the long-standing principle that amour thrives on obstacles. And the show takes great relish in demonstrating the way schemes, well-intentioned or otherwise, inevitably follow the law of unintended consequences.

Enter El Gallo, the shadowy comic villain portrayed by McCormack, who also serves as the Narrator, capably assisted by a pantomime sidekick (Kimberly Mikesell). This sinister yet winningly clumsy foil, donning black leather and a goatee, is out to teach the kids a few lessons about love and loss that even their parents could stand to be reminded of. (Eileen T’Kaye, in a role that’s been changed from Matt’s father to mother, and Harry Groener, as Luisa’s father, connive with campy cunning.)

Alexander does a commendable job of getting his ensemble on the same acting wavelength. Everyone’s game, but not overweeningly so. (McCormack, if anything, is too low-key.) But the production isn’t able to locate the story’s emotional center.
Part of the problem is the way the voices are amplified. Woods has an especially lovely light soprano, but all the intimate color is drained by the acoustics, which even muffle the sound of the mostly hidden upstage orchestra, led by Darryl Archibald. “The Fantasticks” is one show that should stipulate no microphones in its licensing agreements. But a bigger issue is that the musical numbers don’t require such an elaborate staging. In fact, the larger the venue, the less impressive the songs end up seeming.

Bradley Kaye’s sets, Driscoll Otto’s lighting and Kate Bergh’s costumes furnish all the visual splendor a director could desire. But in making such an attractive spectacle of what is ultimately a dime store heart-warmer, Alexander inadvertently prevents us from colluding in the fantasy fun.

-- Charles McNulty

"The Fantasticks," Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 17. $70 to $75. (310) 825-2101 or Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. 

Photo: Top: Eileen T'Kaye, left, Eric McCormack and Harry Groener.  Bottom: Lucas Grabeel and Alison Woods. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times