Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Unforgettable “Fantasticks” at Palm Beach Dramaworks

By Skip Sheffield

There is a reason why “The Fantasticks” is the longest-running musical of all time: it is as close to perfection as you’ll ever find in a small-scale musical.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is presenting their take on this timeless classic through Aug. 5 at 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
“The Fantasticks” is simplicity itself. It requires bare-minimum sets, costumes and orchestration. Creators Tom Jones (books and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) borrowed from a number of traditions, including commedia ‘dell arte, Rosand’s “Les Romanesques,” Wilder’s “Our Town,” Japanese Noh Theater and historical American frontier traveling tent shows for the story.
Dramaworks’ production is surely and sensitively directed by J. Barry Lewis, with musical direction by Craig Ames, who performs onstage at the grand piano, with Kay Kemper on harp.
Ames knows the score like the back of his hand, which allows him to keep in constant touch with the actors for every subtle (and not so subtle) nuance of the script.
“The Fantasticks” is a parable of romantic first love, subsequent disillusionment and ultimate maturation.
Luisa (Jennifer Molly Bell) is a dreamy 16-year-old girl who readily admits she is “insane.”
The object of her affection is next-door neighbor Matt (Jacob Heimer), an “older man” of almost 20. He in turn is mad about Luisa. They express their love in the beautifully harmonized “Metaphor,” which rhapsodizes about every sappy cliché of first-time love.
What the couple doesn’t know is that their respective fathers have been conspiring to bring them together through reverse psychology. The girl’s father Bellomy (Barry J. Tarello) and the boy’s father Hucklebee (Cliff Goulet) have hired a mute man (Cliff Burgess) to construct a wall to separate the would-be lovers. The dads express their reasoning in “Never Say No,” which is exactly how they plan to bring the kids together.
To seal the deal, they hire a mysterious man who calls himself El Gallo (Jim Ballard, who also serves as narrator) to stage an abduction of Louisa so that Matt can intervene to save the day and be Louisa’s hero. To pull off the scheme, El Gallo hires two old, decrepit and inept traveling actors to play all additional roles.
Because “The Fantasticks” is so syrupy sweet on one hand and bitterly disillusioned on the other, it needs the slapstick comedy of these actor buffoons.
Dennis Creaghan has played many distinguished roles in the theaters of South Florida, but for his Shakespeare misquoting Old Actor, he throws all caution to the winds in a hilarious caricature of all pretentious actors.
His bogus Indian cohort, Mortimer (Tangi Colombel, overstuffed with huge belly) specializes in the art of dying, even if it is not called for.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley (go awry)” Robert Burns wrote in 1785. “And leave nothing but grief and pain.”
“The Fantasticks” is not so harsh, but it reminds us nothing worthwhile is achieved without struggle and suffering. This is expressed in the score’s best-known song, “Try to remember,” beautifully sung by baritone Jim Ballard.
I first saw “The Fantasticks” when I was the age of Matt in the original run of the show at Sullivan Street Playhouse in NYC in the summer of 1967. It couldn’t have been more magical. I saw it with the girl I loved.
That is a distant memory, but it is lovingly revived by this lovely production of an evergreen classic.
Tickets are $55 ($10 students) and may be reserved by calling 561-514-4042 or visiting