Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"The Fantasticks:" Complexity and Magic of a Musical

The set of The Fantasticks
The World’s Longest-Running Musical
The original cast of The Fantasticks: Top Row (L to R): Richard Stauffer (the Mute), Jerry Orbach (El Gallo), Jay Hampton (the Handyman); Middle Row (L to R): Thomas Bruce (author Tom Jones as Henry), Rita Gardner (Luisa), Kenneth Nelson (Matt); Bottom Row (L to R): Hugh Thomas (Bellomy), George Curley (Mortimer), William Larsen (Hucklebee)
The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Theatre in New York on May 3, 1960. It played 17,162 performances before closing Jan. 13, 2002. It was revived just a few years later at the Snapple Theatre Center in 2006 and is still running. In fact, Addi McDaniel, who plays Luisa in our production, has performed in the revival on and off for 18 months. While the two productions share the same songs and script, she says they couldn’t be more different. This magical concept is more demanding, but McDaniel is up to the challenge. “I love that the magic is manifested in a physical way,” she says.

A host of now well-known stars have played in different productions through the years, including Jerry Orbach, F. Murray Abraham, David Canary, Ricardo Montalban, Elliott Gould, Liza Minnelli, Glenn Close, Richard Chamberlain, John Carradine and Ed Ames.

The draw of this show is illustrated not just in its record long run in New York, where it remains the only off-Broadway production to have received a Tony award, but in countless productions across the world. The Fantasticks has been produced in every state in the U.S., including a performance at the White House. Internationally, it’s been produced in 67 countries, including far flung locales like Afghanistan, New Zealand, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Bangkok.
Putting on a musical is…complicated. Think about all of the elements that go into producing a play—actors, lights, sets, costumes, sound. Then add in music, singing, and dancing. Director Amanda Dehnert takes the process a step further: She has taken a beloved classic musical—The Fantasticks—and infused new and magical life into it.

For The Fantasticks, Dehnert took her inspiration from the mysterious stranger, El Gallo. Her approach to the musical re-imagines its setting and atmosphere as an abandoned amusement park, invoking the magical innocence of a long-past time. Inspired by the Rocky Point Park in Rhode Island—Eugene Lee’s set design includes actual pieces from that park, which closed in 1995—Dehnert explains that these common local amusement parks “represent a desire for a simpler, easier time in America.” She describes the setting as a place where people once went to escape their cares, but in its abandoned state, the park now is full of the ghosts of happiness and joy. It’s a place where “magic makes the impossible seem possible even for a moment” and a world where things do not always turn out the way we expect.

Rocky Point Park in Rhode Island

The story is straightforward: Two fathers scheme to make their children Matt and Luisa fall in love by pretending to feud and keep them apart. To seal the deal, they hire El Gallo to stage an abduction of Luisa that would allow Matt to rescue her heroically. Will the lovers lose themselves in the magic and moonlight or find their way into the sobering light of day? Will their separation provide a deeper appreciation for the love they once shared—or create a permanent gulf between them?

Addi McDaniel, Perry Ojeda and Anthony Carillo in The Fantasticks.
Photo by Debra Robinson.
What does it take to put this simple story into Dehnert’s richly layered concept? Here is a description of just five minutes in the rehearsal room recently, as the cast and team put together the pieces of the “Round and Round” musical number:

The Fantasticks creators Harvey
Schmidt and Tom Jones
In the rehearsal hall: " Choreographer Susan Jenkins briefly reminds everyone of the set up. El Gallo is showing the world to Luisa (Addi McDaniel), and Matt (Anthony Carillo) is meeting misfortune at every location. Everyone listens, and as soon as she is done the hustle of setting up the scene begins. The movement of the characters is complicated, with every actor involved, props, banners, magic boxes, and other illusions. The Mute (Nate Dendy), carefully folds a sheet that’s standing as a placeholder for a large banner. Associate director Matt Hawkins listens as the two Fathers (Gregory North and Scott Waara) pitch a modification to a costume. Stage manager Jenny Butler and assistant stage manager Jamie Tucker explain to Henry and Mortimer (Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr.) which banner is which and where they need to end up during the song. Dennis Castellano, the music director, plucks a few notes to help Luisa and El Gallo review a few dance steps. Stage management interns Ari and Natalie are moving steps on the mocked up platforms in the rehearsal room. Finally, the scene is set and the frenetic pace in the room stills as suddenly as it began. “Are we ready?” asks Hawkins. The room affirms. “Let’s go,” he says, and Castellano launches into the song and the room comes to life. The sprawling, complex production elements miraculously come together to simply ask if we can find happiness once we’ve seen the tragedy in the world."

The Fantasticks creators Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones began writing together while students at the University of Texas. After partnering successfully on a few revues, they became entranced with French playwright Edmond Rostand (probably best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac). After reading his more well-known works, they hunted down a copy from a rare book dealer in France of the first play he’d written, Les Romanesques, published in 1894, which spoofs Romeo and Juliet. The Fantasticks presents views on love, marriage and relationships that can feel sweet one moment and cynical the next—and therein lies the universal truth of this modern classic.

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