Until this past weekend, I had never seen a production of The Fantasticks — a startling omission from any theater critic's résumé. The Fantasticks, after all, is billed as "the world's longest-running musical," having played for 42 straight years and more than 17,000 performances in its first off-Broadway run. It has been adapted for film and television, has been produced in 67 countries, and is a high-school theater and summer-stock staple.
The show's egalitarian success is owed to the seemingly simple choreography and minimalist set design and musical score, which can be reproduced by just about any community theater without breaking the bank. For Palm Beach Dramaworks, which is known for its lavish scenic designs and exceptional rendering of difficult classics, to produce a show like this is akin to Martin Scorsese directing an episode of Two and Half Men. Weird, but it would probably be the best Two and Half Men episode you've ever seen.
The Fantasticks plays out on an almost empty stage, the props pared down to the essentials. The story concerns "the girl" (Jennifer Molly Bell) and "the boy" (Jacob Heimer) — stargazing, star-crossed neighbors on opposite sides of warring fathers, or so it seems. The dads (Barry Tarallo and Cliff Goulet) have erected a wall between their homes as an artificial impediment for their offspring, with plans to stage a mock abduction of the girl and set up the boy as her hero and savior. They enlist the help of a bandit (Jim Ballard) and a pair of bumbling actors (Dennis Creaghan and Tangi Colombel) to stage the ruse; everything goes according to plan, until the young paramours realize, in act two, what love really means.
The songs, by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, are catchy, clever, and beautiful on their own, and they are the best part of this shapeless experiment. But otherwise, with its mix of Brechtian distancing devices, strained slapstick, and shambling storytelling, The Fantasticks never connects on an emotional level, and the humor is borderline pitiful. The show's abrasiveness, coupled with director J. Barry Lewis' unhurried pacing, can make for a long evening if you're not riding the musical's peculiar wavelength.
That said, there are plenty of reasons to see this production, a testament to Dramaworks' impeccable standard of quality. Dressed in one of Brian O'Keefe's many wonderful, nostalgic costumes, Ballard is outstanding as the bandit. Looking like a villain from an old Western movie, he registers as both rakish and self-deprecating, at once a charmer and a jester, conniving and crooning with a booming baritone. Bell completely inhabits her character's kooky-princess delusions, her voice reaching heavenly octaves, while Cliff Burgess, as the show's mute stagehand, manages to inject personality into what could have been a thankless role. And Tarallo and Goulet bring infectious chemistry to their unusual partnership.
But the fact that even Palm Beach Dramaworks can't sell a good portion of this flaccid material says more about The Fantasticks' mystifying record of success than the company's considerable abilities. In the end, Two and a Half Men is still Two and a Half Men, no matter how well the bad jokes are directed.