On paper, it seems remarkable that, despite its legendary success in Gotham (a 50-year run, with a few interruptions), “The Fantasticks” has never had a West End outing. But now that one has materialized, the wisdom of this omission becomes painfully clear: There is a massive sensibility clash between the tuner’s self-conscious sweetness and the enduring English sense of irony and detachment. Perhaps the only really clever move here is opening just in time for the summer tourist season. Yanks on holiday seem the only imaginable audience base for this overcast, cringe-tastic offering.
Amon Miyamoto, Tony-nommed for his direction of “Pacific Overtures” in 2004, caught the eye of creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt when the Japanese helmer staged “The Fantasticks” in Tokyo in 2005. His innovations there, duplicated here in London, are a raked, diamond-shaped playing area that allows for two small banks of onstage seating (enabling some faux-audience participation, which turns out to involve cast members pretending to be spectators), and an oppressively dark, pared-back staging that (sort of) transforms the mute (Carl Au) into a meant-to-be-invisible kuroko stagehand figure.
The actors are high-powered but underused: Hadley Fraser’s confident, knowing manner manages to lighten the often portentous quality of the narrator’s lines, and we only get the quickest snatches of Clive Rowe’s improbably light-footed charm (and world-class voice) as the boy’s father. Veteran actor Edward Petherbridge offers a few priceless cameos as the dotty old actor, and Paul Hunter adds a whiff of contempo comedic absurdism as the one who dies.
But overall the sense of self-conscious cuteness, and attempts to turn this cultural hodge-podge into a celebration of universal values of love and harmony seemed inevitably doomed in this market.