Dallas — Rhyming is a natural consequence of watching The Fantasticks, a happy-high tale in verse and song by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, two University of Texas guys who wrote the show that became the longest-running production in American theater, with more than 17,000 off-Broadway performances before closing in 2002. The show is currently enjoying a long-running New York revival, and remains one of the most regularly produced plays around the world.
Evergreen and inviting, the six-character musical is perfect for intimate stages like Theatre Three’s in-the-round playing space. The current production, directed with warmth and comic whimsy by Bruce R. Coleman, is the theater’s ninth mounting of this enduring gem. All-round theater dude Coleman also designed the costumes, including the endearing old actor’s bodkin constructed of bright neckties.
Narrator and plotmeister El Gallo (dashing gypsy David Lugo) tells his tried and true story in verse, the melodic songs are wittily rhymed, and everything feels like it’s on the brink, as he urges us to “Try to Remember,” an invitation to recall our own youthful fantasies for the next couple of hours. Nostalgic, maybe—but his seductive summons works.
The love story of wildly romantic Luisa (vibrant, dark-eyed soprano Natalie Coca) and handsome young Matt (boyish, ardent tenor Dennis Wees) next-door neighbors separated by a wall (exquisite Jill Lightfoot as the props girl in motley called The Mute) is fraught with danger—real and invented—and refreshing as spring in December.
When the stalwart young man shelters his adoring sweetheart beneath a flowered bough and they sing the rain-soaked duet “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” accompanied delicately by music director and pianist Pam Holcomb-McLain and clarinetist Michael Dill, even the oldest and coldest lovers in the audience must get a little misty-eyed. Reunited after learning that “without some hurt the heart is hollow,” the two sing a tender, captivating “They Were You.” Swoon.
Their crafty fathers conspire to fan the match to flame by building the wall and pretending to be enemies, on the theory that “to manipulate children, you merely say no.” Big, bluff Bradley Campbell, as Matt’s father, and sharp-eyed, fussy Jackie L. Kemp, as Luisa’s father, are a hoot as determined gardeners applying their horticultural smarts to their kids in “Plant a Radish.” Soon enough, they employ El Gallo to pull off a first-class abduction, complete with Indians and other villains, so Matt can save his ladylove and cement their match.
Linda Kay Leonard choreographs some lovely fantasy sequences when the lovers confront the world outside their village. The balletic abduction fight, choreographed by Haulston Mann, is pure commedia dell’arte, played out on Scott Osborne's whimsical, multi-level set evoking traveling players and magic shows.
But age steals the show in this production. When cosmic comic Terry Vandivort steps very carefully out of a battered trunk as the aged actor Henry, clearly not trusting his knees—or other knobby joints revealed by his tattered tights, he gets a roar of laughter before he even speaks. Wickedly funny and innocent as a newborn babe, he cautiously and hilariously executes a foot-up from his sidekick Mortimer (dauntless, die-hard Darren McElroy), gets his balance on the trunk and declares with slow deliberation, “There.” Uproar.
Watching Vandivort’s aged, forgetful, beautifically derelict actor declaim about all the brilliant roles he’s played in his many years on the road, is a wonderfully immediate and touching experience. He’s played hundred of roles since his debut at Theatre Three 45 years ago, and the sweet passion he brings to the old actor is on beyond funny, reaching a kind of Chaucerian human comedy—immediate, physical and forgiving—smiling at the audience in delight and surprise when his role is done and he and Mortimer vanish slowly into the box. Laughter. Applause. Hush. Don’t miss this performance. It’s that good.
This show is a delightful time-out amidst December’s holiday crunch—and a quick trip back to September. Definitely worth the fare.