at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble through Dec. 17
I hate The Fantasticks the way people hate street mimes.
Mimes intrude on whatever we're doing, then say – if they could talk; isn't it so cute how they don't talk? – "Look at me! I have remarkable talent! You will be having fun now! Did I mention you should look at me?!"
Similarly, The Fantasticks wants desperately for us to nod our agreement that it is wise and lyrical and oh so mellow. It sticks its skimpy set, hackneyed costumes, doggerel rhymes and forgettable songs right in the audience's face and shouts, "You will experience nostalgia! You will chuckle over clever symbolism! And you will become misty-eyed! Right this second!"
Director Roger Welch's production conveys about the right message – that storybooks misrepresent love, which grows deeper only if redeemed through experience and sadness. And it presents that simple lesson in a competent and at times even charming package. But the way that Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt go about presenting the simplistic themes of their musical is all wrong. The themes may be worth presenting onstage, but this show isn't.
The best thing about the Interplayers production is Jack Bannon's Old Actor, Henry, stuttering about past performances and spouting snatches of old Shakespearean speeches, disconnectedly. His character is brought in help stage – more artifice! more commentary! – the incident that separates our two young lovers. Other than that, it's not really clear what Henry is doing in this show. At least Bannon endows the grizzled fellow with a kind of towering yet befuddled dignity: He spouts snippets from Shakespeare so we can congratulate ourselves on how literary we are, then disappears down a trapdoor. Maybe because Bannon actually is one of the best-known acting vets associated with this area, his performance takes on some affecting realism.
Which is more than you can say for the rest of Jones and Schmidt's characters.
That's not a knock on Welch's cast. They do what they can with frayed and hackneyed stuff.
At a couple of junctures ("Never Say No" and "Plant a Radish"), Troy Nickerson and Patrick Treadway (as the young lovers' fathers) are reduced to performing cutesy vaudeville two-steps. It's the kind of goofy song-and-dance at which Nickerson in particular excels. But both numbers feature the kind of we-need-something-upbeat-along-about-now material that's beneath both these veteran Spokane stage performers. They're reduced to reciting comic-book dialogue with really bad rhymes ("It depends on what you pay" with "Ole!").
This is a show that tries to depict genuine behavior by stringing together flowery allusions. The Young Man first greets the Young Woman by frothing over with comparisons of her to Juliet and Guinevere. But then all that's phony and the writers know it, so they try the tactic of undressing the entire show, reducing it to essentials: If we acknowledge how artificial our show is, maybe customers will think it's more real. Problem is, self-conscious artifice – the frank acknowledgment that stage events aren't real, the trumpeting of what's theatrical so that we'll start meditating about how all of life is staged and contrived – may have seemed revolutionary for a musical back when Eisenhower was president. But since The Fantasticks opened, sorry, postmodernism happened, got it already. Running for 42 years may not make a show great, but it sure does put it behind the times.
The Mute scurries about handing people flowers and plums and stick-swords because, well, Jones and Schmidt thought that'd be kind of cute. Christopher Bange, so adept at all kinds of comedy in The Mystery of Irma Vep (Interplayers' last show) is wasted here as the Mute – the kind of part best done by a 16-year-old girl in harlequin makeup and a black leotard. (Which, come to think of it, is an approach to the role that Bange could adopt and have a lot of fun with.)
John Frazier looks and sounds the part of El Gallo, the narrator guy with a Zorro fixation. Frazier cartwheels onstage, engages in some truly impressive swordplay, and sings "Try To Remember" in just the kind of mellow tones you'd expect.
As Matt, Louis Olsen sometimes overplays the fresh-faced innocence; his voice has a nasal quality and sometimes weakens in the lower register. As Luisa (and in her professional debut), Theresa Kelly is good at acting coy and bashful. Her voice sometimes thins out, and she could have injected more pizzazz into her character's longing for adventure in "Much More" – but she and Olsen sing a lovely duet of reconciliation together late in the show ("They Were You").
One of director Welch's best moments arrives with "I Can See It," a simple-minded face-off between Matt's innocence and El Gallo's cynicism; by swirling and circling the two antagonists, Welch gets about as much as he can out of a simplistic exchange.
Musical director Carol Miyamoto and her fellow pianist, Beverly Rhodes, added flourishes that commented on the action. To my untrained ears, it sounded as if they presented polished versions of deceptively simple music.
This musical took up 42 years of off-Broadway history and will, unfortunately, continue to infest stages everywhere because it's so easy to do -- at least by the standards of musical theater: no set to speak of, costumes and props out of a trunk, just three musicians and eight actors. (One of whom, by the way, is a mime.) But ease of production shouldn't be standard for revivals, not when The Fantasticks keeps hammering us with its supposed profundities about reverse psychology, about innocence and experience.
It's the wet-nosed puppy of American musicals, sniffing us insistently in all the embarrassing places. Well, I love puppies, but get this one out of my crotch; it's just not that amusing.