WINTER PARK — One way to measure success in the theater world is, obviously, durability. For every Off-Broadway musical that closed in record time, there was a hit like “The Fantasticks.” The original Off-Broadway production ran for a total of 42 years and 17,162 performances — about as impressive a success story as they get.
The 1960 musical, with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, has romantic songs, an abundance of humor, a dash of suspense — but is also a show that’s remarkably easy to relate to because of its central theme: true love.
It opens by introducing audiences to the burgeoning love between young Matt and Luisa, who are certain that they’ve found their ideal soul mate. They worry, though, about the reaction of their respective fathers, who live next door to one another and constantly bicker.
But there’s a twist: the fathers actually are even more convinced that Matt and Luisa are perfect for one another, and are only pretending to feud. To ensure their kids do fall in love and stay happily attached, they hire traveling actors to stage a fake abduction of Luisa so Matt can heroically rescue her — at which point the feud between the dads ends, the children unite, and both families live happily ever after.
But not so fast. It never comes together that easily, does it?
It’s not hard to see why “The Fantastiks” has proven so phenomenally popular, but the show’s appeal is made even more apparent by the production that opened on Friday at The Winter Park Playhouse. This is the ideal marriage between a first-rate show and the talents of a musical theater company that’s spent 14 years honing their skills at delivering quality productions.
“The Fantastiks” is the ideal musical for the Playhouse’s cast and crew to take on. Using a very minimal set, they allow the audiences’ collective imaginations to play a key role in the show, which opens on a fine September day as Matt and Luisa proclaim their love for one another. And then it carries us through to the point where the kids discover their fathers’ deception, and reject what feels to them is an arranged love match and go their separate ways — only to find a lot of disillusionment on their own in the real world.
All the while, it’s the actor El Gallo and his often mysterious motives that add some drama to the piece. Is he a hero who unites the kids by staging the mock abduction — or a villain with an ulterior motive? Or perhaps, neither one.
The play, directed by the Playhouse’s artistic director, Roy Alan, takes full advantage of not just the show’s wonderful fantasy elements — but also its humor. In fact, there are moments in the show when Roy and his performers manage to take lines that may not have sounded funny on the written page, and turned them into hilarious laugh-out-loud moments.
Great casting is a key to that. Both Molly Jackson and Dustin Russell do a fine job as Luisa and Matt, with beautiful singing voices and the ability to make that first deep crush seem so emotionally overwhelming and exciting. The same is true for Shawn Kilgore as the enigmatic El Gallo.
But there’s no question that this production soars thanks to the comedic skills of four veteran performers. Both David Thome (as Luisa’s father Bellomy) and Glenn Gover (as Matt’s dad Hucklebee) understand comedic timing and character so well that they’re a pure delight every moment they’re on stage. It would be hard to imagine two more riotous actors having so much fun arguing over squashed kumquats, drowned plants and excessively trimmed hedges in their respective yards. Thome and Gover turn these garden feuds into a grand comedic opera that’s wildly funny.
But they can’t quite be called scene stealers, because as good as Thome and Gover are, they’re matched by Michael Edwards and Todd Allen Long as the veteran actors who help El Gallo pull off his mock abduction. Edwards, as a kind of stage legend (in his own mind) and interpreter of great Shakespearean roles, and Long, who does prolonged death scenes dressed as an Indian, truly do steal every second they’re on stage. It’s a testament to Alan and Edwards’ skills that a scene of an actor climbing out of a magic box can seem so wildly funny, and Edwards’s delivery and facial expressions can turn even a plain line into something truly hilarious.
From the beginning on that opening day in September, to the end where snow falls in December, “The Fantastiks” clearly earned its a timeless appeal. But it’s also true that the show seems ideally suited for the Playhouse’s intimate stage, and their actors know how to go well beyond the script’s original intent to find humor and pathos, sentimentality and comical absurdity, in great measure. Don’t miss this one.
“The Fantastiks” is being performed at the musical theater at 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park, now through June 11. For tickets or reservations, call 407-645-0145 or visit www.winterparkplayhouse.org.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..