By Wayne Leung
If you were asked to guess what the longest-running show in American history was you’d likely go with a safe bet like Cats, A Chorus Line, The Phantom of The Opera, Les Misérables or some other similar big-production musical.
In fact, with an uninterrupted Off-Broadway run of 17,162 performances across 42 years, the distinction belongs to a simple yet charming little musical, The Fantasticks. It’s not hard to see why Soulpepper chose to open their 2011 Family Series with a new production of this winsome show.
With music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones), The Fantasticks tells a story of forbidden love between a boy and a girl, their scheming, feuding fathers, and the two families’ misadventures involving a seedy con man and two hapless old-time thespians.
The opening song of The Fantasticks is a call to nostalgia. It beckons the audience to “try to remember, that kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow.” Similarly, the show itself is a lighthearted, silly comedy that harkens back to another time. Written in 1959, the play is noticeably devoid of the wry sarcasm and irony that pervades comedy today.
The Fantasticks isn’t particularly layered; it doesn’t try to be clever or smart, but it’s light, it’s cute and it’s fun. It’s also no coincidence that Soulpepper chose Valentine’s Day for the opening night of The Fantasticks; today’s audiences would likely classify the show as a “rom-com”.
Much of the charm of The Fantasticks stems from its simplicity. With a cast of eight actors plus two musicians (piano and harp) performing a light, comedic script on a spartan yet practical set, the show mostly relies on the singing, acting, dancing and comedic abilities of its cast.
The Fantasticks is definitely an ensemble piece and fortunately, Soulpepper’s production, directed by Joseph Ziegler, features a strong ensemble that delivers the material with the levity and charm required to make it connect with an audience.
Standouts in the cast include Oliver Dennis and Michael Hanrahan as the feuding fathers Henery and Hucklebee, the pair have a great chemistry and stole the show with their song and dance numbers bemoaning the fickleness of their respective children. I also enjoyed Albert Schultz’ understated turn as the scheming Latin lothario, El Gallo. He delivered a measured performance as a character that could easily upstage or steal the scene.
Although The Fantasticks is a modest musical, the efforts of the Soulpepper production team really helped the show punch above its weight. Tim French’s dynamic choreography filled the stage nicely and complemented the quick pace of the show. Christina Poddubiuk’s set, while appropriately spare for the production, made great use of levels; using stacks of ladders to represent trees that the performers could climb was a nice touch.
Ziegler’s direction is on point; the show clips along at a nice gait although I thought the pacing and energy did drag a bit in the second act when the focus shifted away from the comedy to the intrigue in the script.
Overall, The Fantasticks is a fun, accessible show with a lot of warmth and charm. It’s a great show for families, would be great introduction to musical theatre for a newbie and would also be a great “date” show.
– Tickets range from $28 – $60 (plus HST) and are available by calling the Young Centre box office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting www.soulpepper.ca.
– $22 tickets are available for 21-30 year-olds at www.stageplay.ca.
Krystin Pellerin, Jeff Lillico – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann