‘Fantasticks’ is more than romantic farce

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
September 20, 2002

The Fantasticks” is a charming musical set during a time when walls were able to keep young lovers apart and parental matchmaking was an accepted form of courtship. Tom Jones (no, not that one) and Harvey Schmidt wrote “The Fantasticks” for a summer theater production at Barnard College. It opened Off-Broadway in 1960. The longest-running musical in the world, it closed in New York in January after 17,162 performances over the past 42 years.

The story centers on Luisa and Matt, neighbors who have fallen in love despite their fathers’ protests. Each night, they whisper their devotion to each other over a wall their fathers built to separate them. When Matt’s father tells him, “I went shopping this morning and picked you out a wife,” the boy is mortified.

What he doesn’t realize is the two fathers not only approve of their romance, they helped orchestrate it by concocting a family feud and building a wall between their properties. As one of the fathers says, “To manipulate children, you simply say ‘no.’ ”

Since they don’t want their children to resist marriage by saying they approve of the union, they concoct another plan. They hire a dashing bandit to kidnap the girl, which will allow the boy to save her. The fathers will be so grateful they’ll bless the union.

No mention is made of either of the fathers’ wives, but you get the feeling that had they been around, they wouldn’t have let the menfolk make such a complicated mess out of romance.

As much as romance sets the stage for the Pegasus Players’ production of “The Fantasticks,” it’s also the least interesting aspect of this musical. Marci Medwed and Ben Cohen do what they can as the sweet but bland couple. But the play crescendos when Henry and Mortimer–a pair of aging thespians–“audition” for the kidnapping caper.

As the doddering, self-possessed Henry, Henry Michael Odum is a delight. His voice perfectly evokes wistful pretentiousness as he recites a mangled bit of Shakespeare.

One of the odder choices that Jones and Schmidt made was to include a happy-go-lucky scene dubbed “Rape Ballet,” in which actors cheerily sing about acting out “such a pretty rape.” The play is set during a time when rape served as a synonym for abduction, not as a signifier of sexual assault. But it’s probably just as disturbing now as it was four decades ago to hear the word sung ad nauseum in such a chipper manner.

As the bandit El Gallo, Dan Zakarija exhibits a nice hammy flair. But it’s his voice that resonates and will trigger lasting memories after you’ve left the theater. He begins the play singing a gorgeous rendition of “Try to Remember” that tugs at the heart. You’d have to have a lump of coal in your chest to not be moved by his rendition.

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