The emotional precision of “The Fantasticks” — central to its worldwide appeal and original 17,162-perf run — is in short supply in Reprise’s overproduced revival. Despite game ensemble playing by name talent from sitcoms (“Will and Grace” star Eric McCormack), cinetuners (Lucas Grabeel of “High School Musical”) and Gotham (Harry Groener of “Crazy for You”), heavy-handed touches injected by helmer Jason Alexander suggest a puzzling lack of faith in the piece and/or the audience.
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s dreamily symbolic gem retains resonance as we bask in the glow of a spellbound youthful romance engineered by plotting parents (Groener and Eileen T’Kaye). Even more, we share the rue of boy (Grabeel) and girl (Alison Woods) upon encountering the bitter reality necessary for sustaining romance. Keynote song “Try to Remember” reminds us “without a hurt, the heart is hollow,” and, let’s face it, we’ve been there.
Certainly no helmer need restrict himself to the traditional vest-pocket, two-planks-and-a-passion 1960 staging, but he needs to protect the inherent delicacy. And delicacy is the chief victim as Reprise retrofits the tiny tuner to Freud Playhouse dimensions, in a high-tech context evoking a wind-up toyshop and candy box.
What undoes the production isn’t Bradley Kaye’s vast set reminiscent of a 1950s TV variety show. It’s the crushing literalness of execution.
As if convinced we’re unwilling to employ imagination, every conceivable lyric is acted out, as in “Soldiers must fight (combat gesture) and preachers must pray (prayer gesture).” When a color is mentioned, you may be sure Driscoll Otto’s lights will hit the white drapes with it. The magic is literalized too, with illusion machinery doggedly whisked on and off with a nod to Bob Fosse’s staging of “Pippin.”
Distraction is ubiquitous. Lee Martino’s choreography turns character songs into Big Numbers detracting from their plot purpose: Cast’s zipping about during “This Plum Is Too Ripe” eliminates the sense of oppressive heat at the number’s core. And woodland creature puppets ensure no one will listen to the love scene played among them.
The overall effect is that of children’s theater. With each obvious projection (a disc spins around during the song “Round and Round”) and imposition (a jam-smeared cat appears when the parents sing about putting jam on a cat), the story’s charm further recedes.
Frustratingly, this cast is clearly capable of simple emotional effects given half a chance. Woods needs variety, but she sets off sparks with the likable Grabeel when left alone. McCormack’s relaxed assurance provides the grounding demanded of any good Narrator. As traveling thesps Henry and Mortimer, Barry Dennen and Hap Lawrence find tenderness through subtle Beckettian echoes (if they were only funny, they’d be perfect).
Changing the sex of the Boy’s parent adds a not-unwelcome sexual tension, which old pros T’Kaye and Groener don’t push too far. And Darryl Archibald’s orchestrations, far fuller than the traditional piano and harp, do credit to Schmidt’s timeless melodies.
A far less felicitous innovation is promoting the little Mute (Kimberly Mikesell) from props factotum to emcee, street mime, ballerina and all-around buttinsky. Winking and mugging in striped pants and glitter makeup, she’s a focus-pulling nuisance in every number into which she’s shoehorned (which is most of them).
By signaling our hoped-for emotional reactions she merely forestalls them, and the hint of a romance with McCormack works against the poignancy of a Narrator possessing all the answers for others but none for himself. Here, as elsewhere, a central “Fantasticks” nuance is bowled over by ill-advised choices.