Try to remember a time when you were young and in love. You had a certain mindset for how the world would be: you’d fall in love, get married, and live out years and years in perfect bliss. Then reality hit you like a thunderbolt and you realized you didn’t know what you were talking about. That’s all part of growing up, and that’s what happens in the classic musical The Fantasticks, currently playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
We open on an empty loft-like room. A Mute (Jason Shavers) comes onstage and with a pointed glare “tells” the audience to shut their phones off. Soon after that the Narrator (Josh Powell) enters and prepares the room to tell the story of The Fantasticks. The actors are introduced and we jump into act one. The Narrator explains that our heroes, Matt and Luisa, are young, in love, and insane. They each have fantasies of what perfect and happy love will be like and are adamant they have found it in each other. Jamen Nanthakumar and Mary Elizabeth Drake are adorable as the young lovers, brimming with enthusiasm and annoying positivity. The performances and the script (written in verse) suggest that the actors are having a laugh at their cheery optimistic characters.
The plot unfolds: Matt and Luisa are neighbors and are separated by a wall that their feuding fathers have constructed. But wait! The fathers (played by Gavan Pamer and Daniel Krell) are actually good friends and the wall is part of an elaborate plot to make their very young children fall in love! They advance their scheme by paying a bandit, El Gallo (played by the Narrator), to stage an abduction of Luisa that forces Matt to become a hero by “saving” her.
The whole cast is endearing during act one, an act about love. The fathers sing a song about tricking their kids, El Gallo sings a song about planning the abduction, the kids sing multiple songs about being in love. As the hired actors, Noble Shropshire and Tony Bingham score some good comic moments. The act is a bit one-noted, but that’s the point: everyone is blinded by the potential love and the talk of a happy ending. The picture-perfect conclusion comes at the end of act one, and then for act two things take a more cynical turn.
As the metaphorical/cardboard sun rises on act two the characters realize things aren’t as magical as they thought they’d be. The lovers realize their love may have been hasty, while the fathers don’t particularly enjoy the fact that the wall has been torn down. As a cynical person I enjoyed act two better than the first, and it began to be clear what made this show a hit back in 1960. The show dares to question the “happily ever afters” associated with musicals and takes the characters to an uglier place. At the end of the day The Fantasticks conveys that love is never simple and reality doesn’t end up matching the fantasy.
The score is by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not him), and contains classics like “Try to Remember” and other songs that I can’t remember. The cast sings beautifully (Drake has some nice clear high notes as the show’s lone female) but the songs don’t stay in your head after you leave. Minimal pieces are used in James Noone’s slick set. The show doesn’t call for scenery and it makes the action a little claustrophobic as the actors look like they’re walking in circles. The production is aided by the Mute, who appears to fill the role of the Narrator’s stage manager. For technical reasons, the Mute exists to represent the “wall” between houses, throw confetti into the air to signify changing seasons, and pass out props. From a storytelling standpoint, I’m not sure what the Mute is supposed to represent. I will say that having Jason Shavers, the only black cast member, playing the Mute can feel somewhat uncomfortable. In one scene the Mute is kneeling by a bench representing a workman rebuilding a wall, and the (white) father characters try to speak to him before noting “He’s not supposed to speak.” On one hand I’m maybe reading too much into it. On the other hand, here’s a black actor denied a voice who exists solely to carry the white actors’ props.
The Fantasticks is the longest-running Off-Broadway musical and has had thousands of productions all over the world. As with most classic musicals, the question “does this hold up?” has to be asked. In terms of the music and the campy matchmaking plot, not really. But the dismissing attitudes towards young puppy love and happily ever after adds an element of fun to it. The charming cast make the show entertaining, and succeeds in balancing a silly story with a bit of earnestness.
The Fantasticks runs at the O’Reilly Theatre through October 30th. For tickets and more information, click here. For more information about the rest of our Top 5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Fall, click here.