A Fantastick tale

“The first time I saw The Fantasticks, it was [because] one of my friends called me up and said, ‘This is one of the best plays I’ve ever seen in my life. It has the whole meaning of life in it,'” recalls Bill Dreyer of his initial encounter with the world’s longest-running musical. Asheville Community Theatre’s guest director (formerly of Burnsville’s Parkway Playhouse, and the recipient of an Emmy Citation for his work on the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Emmy-winning La Boheme) was skeptical, figuring his friend must have overstated the case. So he went to see for himself.

“It really does have the meaning of life,” Dreyer now reflects gently. “Both the boy and the girl grow up thinking they’re right for each other; then they get their wanderlust and have to go out and experience the world. And the world beats them up a little bit. They come home sadder but wiser. … It’s so human. It’s about the human condition.”

Based on a story by 19th-century playwright Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac), The Fantasticks — written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt — has been filling New York City’s famous Sullivan Street Playhouse since 1960. Also considered a loose parody of Romeo and Juliet, the play is not so much a farce as it is that classic’s impish fraternal twin.

In Jones and Schmidt’s updated version, the lovesick girl and boy are named Matt and Luisa. And, far from being at loggerheads, their parents (her mother and his father, to be exact) actually want the two to wed. Their modus operandi, however, is reverse psychology: By staging a feud and constructing a wall between their neighboring houses, the parents are counting on youthful rebellion to force an attraction between the pair. Their clever method works, at first. Knowing they’re off limits to each other, Luisa and Matt cling desperately to their “forbidden” love. The pair’s devotion is cemented when their folks hire a swashbuckling rent-a-villain, the diabolical El Gallo, to abduct Luisa and purposefully lose the ensuing duel with Matt, thereby driving the two lovers into each other’s arms. For a while, all is lovely.

But reality dawns in the second act. Suddenly, moonlit fancies are literally scorched away by a piercing sun. Parental blessings burn away the blinders, and the unshackled lovers now see only each other’s faults.

Mark Jones, who plays Matt in ACT’s production, puts it this way: “Teenagers, of course, do not want what’s supposed to be. They want things to be fun — and from their own creation, not someone else’s creation.”

The Fantasticks’ eventual happy ending thus comes at the price of shattered innocence. Luisa, bored with Matt, allows herself to be wooed by the seductive El Gallo, while Matt leaves home to experience “real” life. When the former is abandoned and the latter returns bruised with the ways of the world, the two are sufficiently shed of illusions to see each other clearly.

“Everyone eventually loses innocence at one point, you know, and there are so many ways to lose it,” notes Jones. “But you have to lose it to be a better person — because, if not, you miss so much in life.”

Dreyer sees this message as one reason for the play’s unequaled run. “We seem to lose more innocence every decade,” says the director. “Maybe [the story] has even become more timely today.”

Certainly the music, featuring such classics as the lead song “Try to Remember,” is another contributing factor to the play’s enduring popularity. As Dreyer points out, “It’s a beautiful score, a gorgeous score — some of the most tuneful melodies since Verdi. The songs have been recorded by many pop singers, [including] Streisand. Indeed, the tunes are so insidious that, every day, I’ve got one in my head.”

Debbie Nordeen, head of Asheville women’s choral group Womansong, is the show’s musical director. By adding percussion to the play’s traditional harp-and-piano arrangements, she deftly ups the suspense.

Since its debut in the 99-seat basement theater, The Fantasticks has traditionally featured a spare set, with prop action helped along by the Chaplinesque, top-hatted Mute (Lupe Perez). Despite the play’s simple trappings, its web of predictable relationships is spun to complexity by two relatively minor characters, the Old Actor and El Gallo — family outsiders who nonetheless shoulder the show’s weightiest portions of humor and depth.

“I’ve sometimes said that humor is a great defense against despair,” muses veteran actor James Laird. “Certainly not everyone that comes to the theater is in despair, but they all have tragic aspects of their life, and it’s a relief to forget them for a while.”

Laird (who’s played Duncan in Hamlet and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) is a pure delight in the role of the cheerfully ranting Old Actor. Attended by his trusty sidekick Mortimer (Richard Webb), he appears intermittently in bedraggled Elizabethan garb to bellow acting instructions to the scheming El Gallo. The two-faced villain (portrayed by Rob Miller) also serves as the show’s narrator. In one scene, El Gallo soulfully advises the audience that we all must “die before we grow again.” In another, he’s stealing Luisa’s treasured necklace. Throughout the show, Miller’s liquid eyes glitter with guile and remorse, coaxing and converting.

Stacia Kingston’s darkly sassy stage presence and resonant voice labor in valiant restraint to evoke Luisa’s deluded mother. Her offstage poise belies her own age (24) and even that of the character she portrays.

“[The play] shows the way the world really works,” says Kingston matter-of-factly. “Through all these turmoils, they realize how simple true love is, how basic and wonderful it is.”

Less sure about such matters is Whitney Moore, appearing in her first principal role at age 18 — and perfect as Luisa. Onstage, she draws center attention: The actress appears barely to brush the ground as she moves, sparkling defensively in a private shower of innocence, like a petulant Tinkerbell. Her singing voice leapfrogs fragile, dizzying octaves above everyone else’s — crystalline in its willfulness, yet never shrill. But getting ready for rehearsal, she seems as restless and changeable as any teenager — first gushing about the music, then venturing a hesitant synopsis of the play’s theme.

“It’s a lot more modernized and realistic [than Romeo and Juliet] in saying that true love isn’t that easy, that it’s got to be worked for,” she reflects. “‘You have to die a little before you grow again’ … isn’t that the line?”

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