With imminent revivals of Broadway’s third and fourth longest-running musicals (“Les Miserables” and “A Chorus Line,” respectively) — while Nos. 1, 6, 7, 9 and 10 continue their runs — it seems inevitable that someone would revive the longest-running musical in the history of the world. After a mere 4½ years, the 1960 Off Broadway hit “The Fantasticks” has returned in a close re-creation that happily replicates the original’s charms.
Back in a long-ago time, “The Fantasticks” enchanted audiences with the simplest of materials: a small platform, two benches, two trunks, three painted bedsheet-sized curtains, a piano and the ever-present harp. Lyricist-librettist Tom Jones wove a spell with his featherlight romance of a moonstruck girl and the boy next door, their meddling horticultural fathers and a dashing stranger. The lightness was all an illusion, as was the stagecraft; to quote Jones, “What at night seems oh so scenic, may be cynic in the light.” But musicals — especially low-budget, no-frills affairs produced in out-of-the-way theaters — rise or fall on the songs.
Harvey Schmidt’s music — a combination of robust rhythms and rain-soft delicacy, flavored with vaudevillian hoke — is the true driving force. The 1960 show was buoyed (and initial business was propelled) by two instant pop hits, “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.” But a visit to the revival demonstrates that song after song lands: Luisa’s plea for “Much More”; the lover’s duet “Metaphor” (in which the sun is “burning like a hot pomegranate”); the jazzy morning-after quartet, “This Plum is too Ripe”; two comedy-team duets for the character men; and the older-but-wiser song of acceptance, “They Were You.”
The show’s two mini-production numbers, “The Abduction Ballet” and “Round and Round,” work as well as formerly, while the second-act duet, “I Can See It,” remains a vigorous high point. (This duet between the idealistic young hero and the jaded leading player seems to have exerted a strong influence on the creators of the musical “Pippin.”)
This is not an exact restaging. Lyricist-librettist Jones has directed, after the original by the late Word Baker, but some changes are apparent. The tone seems somewhat more comic. El Gallo, the narrator and central character, appears to be more tongue-in-cheek; the young lover definitely seems much goofier; and the two itinerant actors might be far broader than before.
While the set is closely reproduced, a glance at 1960 production photos shows that the costumes (though credited here to original designer Ed Wittstein) are very much different; the boy and girl are now dressed in white, for starters. But the magic remains, mostly. Highlighting it all is the aural pleasure of hearing Schmidt’s music from strong, unamplified voices, accompanied by piano and embellished only by the delicious sound of that harp.
The cast is led by Burke Moses, in the role that started young Jerry Orbach on the road to fame. Moses does very well; his “Try to Remember” is as evocative as one could wish. Best known for his bravura turn as Gaston in the original cast of “Beauty and the Beast,” Moses here sounds and looks like an odd combination of Robert Preston and Alfred Drake.The young lovers are equally attractive. Sara Jean Ford plays the girl, Santino Fontana is the goofy boy. Both supplement the necessary singing skills with a friendly, comic sense. The fathers are played by veteran Broadway players Leo Burmester (who has been known to chew the scenery, and happily does so here) and Martin Vidnovic (a one-time El Gallo, circa 1973). Douglas Ullman Jr. is the Mute in charge of stagecraft, while Robert R. Oliver is a little broad as Mortimer.
Author-director Tom Jones — under the nom-de-stage Thomas Bruce — re-creates his original cast performance as Henry, the faded Shakespearean actor. (Has any other actor ever returned to the New York stage 46 years later, in the same role?) Jones is a particular treat, performing with such relish you want to slather him with mustard.
“The Fantasticks” is the premiere attraction at the third-floor space in what is somewhat grandly called the Snapple Theater Center. (There is another theater upstairs, hosting the long-running murder mystery “Perfect Crime.” At the preview attended, the thump of bodies and a blood-curdling scream were clearly audible just before Luisa’s solo.)
Located diagonally across from the Winter Garden, the theater is identified by a 180-foot electric sign featuring revolving bottle caps and “the world’s largest Snapple bottle.” While the Broadway entrance — “up a steep and very narrow stairway,” as in “A Chorus Line” — looks ominous, the space inside is more than adequate. Laid out to replicate the show’s original Greenwich Village venue, Sullivan Street Playhouse, the Snapple is somewhat wider and one-third larger, though legroom is severely restricted even by Broadway standards.
Revival comes from the high-powered Frankel-Routh-Baruch-Viertel team, instrumental in such current hits as “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Sweeney Todd.” Given that current-day Off Broadway economic conditions and advertising rates are problematic, this Off Broadway-on-Broadway (literally) venture will make an interesting experiment.
The producers have gambled on an unusually late 8:30 curtain, apparently banking that last-minute ticketbuyers who can’t nab ducats for the musical(s) of their choice will consider “The Fantasticks” a safe bet. While another 42-year run is not in the cards, the new “Fantasticks” — with its charms and entertainment value intact — delivers very nicely. And the audience still visibly swells at the sound of “Try to Remember.”