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The Fantastics Essay, Research Paper
If there is truly tradition to be found among the great theatres both on and off Broadway, then certainly the Sullivan Street Playhouse and its long running production of The Fantasticks rates as one of the most celebrated of New York theatrical traditions. Maintaining its place as the longest running production Off Broadway, The Fantasticks remains an enchanting and insightful tale of both young love and bitter disillusionment. It also reminds one, in this age of spectacle and the mega-musical, how powerful and truly inspiring theatre itself can be. Clearly, one of the great strengths of this production and a large part of its appeal for audiences over the last four decades lies in the fact that both the story and the style of presentation compliment each other so completely. Here we find the non-essentials are stripped away, and we are left to rely simply on the imagination of both the audience and the performers to create a magical evening.
The story of The Fantasticks, written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt and also based upon Edmond Rostand’s play Les Romanesques, concerns itself with the pairing of two young lovers, appropriately enough, the Boy and the Girl. As their story begins to unfold, as told to us by the Narrator (El Gallo), we quickly come to recognize both the Boy and Girl as specific characters with specific concerns, but at the same time we see them as every boy and girl that have ever fallen in love. We see the Boy’s unwavering devotion and the Girl’s romantic idealism and even though their fathers have built a wall between them, the zealous young lovers will let nothing stand in the way of their passion. Just as the story might begin to fall into predictability, we discover the Fathers have actually contrived to build this wall between their children for the sole purpose of bringing them together as opposed to keeping them apart. In a very humorous, but insightful duet “Never Say No,” the Fathers explain their intentions for arranging their children’s marriage, all the while appearing the typical, disapproving parents. At this point, the Narrator becomes more actively involved in the action of the story and convinces the Fathers that the only way to truly insure their children’s pairing is to stage an abduction of the Girl, thereby allowing the Boy to save her and the two to live happily ever after. Enlisting the help of a couple of ancient traveling players, the Fathers and El Gallo do indeed stage a rather miserable kidnapping, which works perfectly in convincing the Boy and Girl they do truly love one another and are destined to be together forever. All of this occurs before intermission, so what’s left to tell in the second act? Simply, how life sets in, how happily ever after seldom ends happily, and whether we like it or not, how pain and heartbreak are an essential part of real love.
It is really in the telling of the second act that the story of The Fantasticks begins to soar. Because it is at this point we begin to see the contrast between the young lover’s idealized vision of love and the reality of trying to maintain love in a world full of thieves, cheats, and charlatans. As the second act begins, we see the actors, the Fathers and the Boy and Girl, in the same exact position they were in at the close of the first, having just finished a number called “Happy Ending.” Now, however, the light is more glaring, the positions growing more uncomfortable by the minute, and the expressions on the character’s faces become increasingly strained and forced. It is a wonderful moment onstage that speaks volumes about how difficult it is to maintain that warm, romantic glow of love in the harsh glare of daylight. Reminiscent of Blanche DuBouis and her desperate need to hide from the glare, or Sondheim’s Into the Woods, with its not so happily ever after second act, The Fantasticks speaks eloquently on the subject of reality versus fantasy. As the Boy goes off in search of romance and adventure and the Girl sees El Gallo as her new romantic leading man, it becomes painfully clear to the audience and eventually to the characters themselves, that life has much more in store than simply “happy endings.”
Sitting in the Sullivan Street Playhouse and knowing of the legendary history of this production of The Fantasticks, I found myself wondering why? What was there about this production, about this play that has attracted audiences for the past 35 years? I wouldn’t presume to offer any kind of a definitive conclusion, but I do believe much of this production’s appeal lies in its deceptively simple staging and pure theatricality. Much of the enjoyment derived from watching this production, (and judging by the other faces in the crowd, there was indeed much enjoyment) seems to stem from a kind of inherent appreciation for good storytelling. Children and adults alike revel in a well-told tale. And as the Narrator begins this story with “Once upon a time there was a Boy and a Girl,” we are ushered into a world of romance and fantasy, but like any good story it contains bits of truth and reality and lessons to be learned. The Narrator tells his story. The actors play their parts. The music plays and the story unfolds simply, beautifully.
This production works so well because it knows its own strengths, namely to keep it simple. Why trot out a realistic wall, when an actor with a small cane can serve to separate our two young lovers? What kind of wall would you have anyway? Maybe I see a great block wall 12 feet tall and you see a smallish, New England rock wall (“Good fences make good neighbors”)? Do I need an entire stage of falling snow, dramatic shadowy lighting and sound effects, or can I simply watch a pair of actors sitting below another actor holding a couple of branches, dropping bits of white confetti and imagine the most serene meeting of young love? Throughout The Fantasticks we are treated to a taste when others would’ve seen fit to serve a seven-course meal, and it works perfectly. When actors die with a flourish of floating bits of red paper and we see blood, or when a piece of cardboard covered with foil makes us see a romantic, moonlit rendezvous, then theatre is truly being created.
This production is also greatly benefited by the presence of a fine ensemble of actors who seem to take great pleasure in their roles. Obviously, with a production that has run continuously for 35 years, the company runs the risk of getting stale or bored, but it was very apparent that the current cast attacks the play with a fresh vitality and energy that become contagious. Eric Meyersfield and Christine Long who play the Boy and the Girl are both making their Off-Broadway debut and undoubtedly bring a great deal of youthful energy and spark to their parts. Particularly impressive was John Savarese playing the part of the Narrator with an engaging charm and likeability that makes his calculated betrayal of the Girl all the more cruel. There is much room to play El Gallo as an unsympathetic manipulator, but Mr. Savarese finds a way to balance his character’s actions with compassion, which makes for some wonderfully poignant moments, especially in the signature tune “Try to Remember.”
Obviously, I found much to like and little to fault in this current incarnation of The Fantasticks. I believe it works on so many levels because it chooses to tell a simple story simply. We can draw from it what we want. Like the characters themselves, we can choose to see what we want to see. Though we all know “happily ever after” seldom is, there is indeed a kind of “Happy Ending” feeling after seeing this production of The Fantasticks.
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