Thursday, June 16, 2011

Off Broadway: The Fantasticks

Nearly half a century ago, I, as a newly married but still callow youth of 25 and Sue, my much more worldly-wise 23 year old child bride, attended an early performance of The Fantasticks starring Jerry Orbach as El Gallo at the old Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village.  We loved the show and, as it turned out, so did most of the rest of the world: it went on to run for 42 years, finally closing in 2002 after playing a record 17,162 performances.  It was the world’s longest running musical and the longest-running uninterrupted show of any kind in the U.S.

Little more than four years later, the show was revived in an off Broadway production at the Snapple Theater (since renamed The Jerry Orbach Theater in honor of the first El Gallo).  With some hesitancy, we recently purchased tickets to the revival, fearful that we would now find the show dated, that the revival wouldn’t be anywhere near as charming as the original show had been or, more to the point, that we, now septuagenarians and on the cusp of celebrating our own fiftieth wedding anniversary, would simply not react to the show as we had as twenty-somethings.

But we did want our 10 1/2 year old granddaughter, Naomi, who already is quite enamored of the theatre, to see the show.  And so we bit the bullet, threw caution to the winds, mixed our metaphors and purchased tickets to yesterday’s matinee performance.  And we’re very glad we did.

Yes, the play is dated.  And changing sensibilities did require some politically correct modifications to at least one of the show’s musical numbers: in an apparent concession to the feminist movement, “The Rape Ballet” became the “Abduction Ballet” (although the term “rape,” as it was used in the original production was clearly intended to convey the word’s Middle English meaning “to seize, take or carry off by force” with no particular sexual connotation.)  But in a way, the fact that the play was dated only added to its charm and the bit of bowdlerization didn’t detract significantly from the play’s overall effect (certainly nothing like deleting the “n-word” from “Huckleberry Finn” although who could ever imagine anybody proposing anything like that?)

The staging, direction and choreography were all excellent and several of the performances were absolutely delightful.  To be sure, we were disappointed to discover that Charles West would be filling in for Bradley Dean in the role of The Narrator (El Gallo) at the performance we attended; West didn’t bring Jerry Orbach’s elan to the role (but then, there’s no way of knowing whether we would have thought that Dean did either, had we seen him in the role.  Jerry Orbach is a tough act to follow, even after 50 years, and our nostalgic memories do play tricks on us.)

Juliette Trafton as The Girl (Luisa) was lovely and refreshing and she does sing beautifully.  Dan Sharkey as The Boy’s Father (Hucklebee) and Bill Bateman as The Girl’s Father (Bellomy) were as entertaining in their roles as an old Abbott and Costello duo or burlesque act.  McIntyre Dickson as The Old Actor (Henry) was wonderful in the role originally played by Tom Jones himself (who wrote the book and lyrics and directed this production).  And Michael Nostrand as The Man Who Dies (Mortimer) is a Chaplinesque marvel to watch; so far as my granddaughter, Naomi, is concerned, he stole the show.

So here’s the bottom line:  It may be true that “you can’t go home again” – at least not to stay – but you certainly can go home again for a short visit.  And that’s what we found this revival of The Fantasticks to be: a short and enjoyable visit back to an earlier and more innocent time in our lives.

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