Call it a magician’s twist on musical theater’s most enduring chestnut. Director Amanda Dehnert has set “The Fantasticks” in an abandoned amusement park, embellished it with non-stop fantasy from illusionists extraordinaire Jim Steinmeyer and Jeff Grow, and assembled a first-rate cast to showcase the timeless tale and the score of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones. The result is a thoroughly enchanting production and a certain holiday hit for D.C.’s Arena Stage.
Dehnert, a resident director at Providence, R.I.’s Trinity Rep, has carved a niche as a reinventor of classic tuners such as “My Fair Lady.” Joined by set designer Eugene Lee, she has done so here by emphasizing a central aspect of this musical’s romantic theme — the naive illusions of young lovers — that has so endeared it to auds, notably in its unmatched 40-year original Off Broadway run.
Gone are the simple benches and bed-sheet curtains that starkly adorned many past productions. Dehnert and Lee have placed the homespun tale amid the faded glory of a shuttered amusement park, a tired remnant of the “good old days.” What better locale to summon the imagination of patrons for invisible walls and other nonexistent props?
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Previously seen at Trinity Rep and other venues, the staging has been remounted with a new cast at D.C.’s historic Lincoln Theater, one of Arena’s two temporary homes during the elaborate renovation of its Maine Avenue campus.
Steinmeyer and Grow have seemingly rolled out the entire repertoire of magically appearing doves and objects, vanishing performers and cascading flowers. Most are conjured by the dexterous fingers of Sebastian La Cause, who offers a convincing performance as crooning emcee El Gallo. Accompanied by his silent sidekick, an impressively agile Nate Dendy, their sleights-of-hand keep the proceedings on an agreeably mystical course.
La Cause is equally at home with the role’s other assignments, starting with a spirited and sincere delivery of the show’s anchor number, “Try to Remember.” His seamless performance includes occasional light dancing and other numbers such as act two duet “I Can See It.”
As the dewy young lovers who rudely encounter reality, Timothy Ware and Addi McDaniel are just right. McDaniel, fresh from the show’s Off Broadway production, raises the bar dramatically with her crystal soprano in the early number, “Much More.” The two partner beautifully on the tuner’s other standout song, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” while otherwise exuding innocence.
Ware is one of two African-Americans astutely cast in this production. Veteran thesp Jerome Lucas Harmann serves up a gentle spirited Bellomy, Luisa’s father, who schemes with his neighbor to direct the youngsters’ future. A convincing Michael Stone Forrest is his tempestuous partner in crime, Hucklebee. The two bring a lively presence to their duets, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish.”
Laurence O’Dwyer adds a deft comedic touch to the role of Henry, the decrepit Shakespearean actor enlisted to help execute the plot. Blessed with an expressive face and keen timing, O’Dwyer achieves the maximum from subtle winks and moves. His presence adds another sublime element to this remake of the perennial fave.