Audience Participation 

Masquers pulls off the original, long-running Fantasticks.

Community theater artistic directors often choose their seasons with an eye to familiarity. But with The Fantasticks, a technically simple off-Broadway musical about two lovers, two fathers, a bandit, and a wall, it's likely that audience members have been in it themselves. The night I caught the Masquers Playhouse production, I overheard two separate conversations regarding the latter. Its lively charm has made The Fantasticks one of the most-performed high school and community theater musicals, and its creators took the unusual step of putting the script into circulation while the first production was still running.

That was fortunate, as the original production ran for 42 solid years at New York's Sullivan Street Playhouse, the longest of any musical in US history. Producer Lore Noto attempted to shut it down in 1986 when he became too ill to participate, but there was such a kerfuffle that his partners threatened to keep running the show without him, and he relented.

In other words, you'd better get this one right, because the audience will be singing along. They've heard the songs as recorded by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Barbara Mandrell, Jim Nabors, and Roy Orbison, and have seen it with Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) on television, or Elliott Gould and Liza Minnelli live. A lucky few may have seen Law and Order's late Jerry Orbach create the role of the wise rogue El Gallo. And the Masquers do get it right, if conservative, with three musicians behind a scrim behind the actors and the choice to use the original script.

When a play runs for decades, it'll inevitably change. Fortunately, the Masquers aren't going with the newfangled version, either with El Gallo's expanded history or the infamous song "It Depends on What You Pay," which begins with a drawn-out croon of the word "rape." While El Gallo hastens to explain he's talking about rape in the literary sense of a woman being abducted, not sexually violated, there was some concern, with the Women's Lib movement on the rise, that audiences were becoming touchy about the R word. It's what the faithful call "the controversy." While an alternative version ("Abductions, and So Forth") was written in 1990 for those gentle companies that wanted it, "Abductions" is ungainly. Paul Macari as El Gallo rips out the original good-naturedly, without the lugubriousness that is almost impossible to avoid on his earlier "Try to Remember" with its mellow/callow/fellow/willow rhyme.

Indeed, much of the singing here is good, especially Bridget O'Keeffe as Luisa, who glides confidently through her broad and sometimes witty vocal range. O'Keeffe has fun with a character whose burgeoning beauty is making her, in El Gallo's words, insane. Prancing moonily around the stage bubbling about having her eyelids kissed, this Luisa is especially light and delicate. Her beloved, Matt (Kyle Johnson), is a little bland until he starts singing, and then gets a lot more engaging, a trend that continues into the second act when he has to toughen up and duet with El Gallo on "Beyond That Road."

Alex Shafer and Keith Jefferds are fun as the the scheming dads in plaids, although Jefferds as Hucklebee, Matt's father, appears to have difficulty moving his head and neck independently of his shoulders, creating a sort of monolithic torso that gets distracting. He has the smile of a cheerful lesser demon, though, which serves well as he sings about how you have to manipulate your children. A veteran of the Lamplighters chorus, Shafer is looser and more naturalistic as Luisa's dad Bellomy.

Jim Colgan and Robert Love are sadly muted as Henry and Mortimer, the actors who fill out El Gallo's cast of marauders. Henry is a part that begs to be played big, but Colgan goes with sleepy. Love's Mortimer is a little livelier, especially in one of his signature death scenes, but overall the two miss the chance to inject the first act with some tang.

Why has The Fantasticks persevered? It was fresh and unusual at first, its simple design — a platform, a box of props, a cardboard moon — contrasting so sharply with the elaborate Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals audiences were used to. Its story is universally appealing, and the music is catchy. Based on Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques ("The Romancers"), about two fathers who connive to match their children by pretending a feud and hiring a bandit to create a little drama, the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt version has singing, swordfighting, and broad physical humor. It's also loaded with Shakespeare references, from the cheeky takeoff on the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the fact it's written in verse. But where Rostand (who also wrote Cyrano de Bergerac) was trying to spread fantasy, Jones and Schmidt decided to take their story in a very different direction — as a gentle reminder that in the real world, you have to make less-heroic sacrifices for love, and there are no fairy-tale endings. Except maybe for a little show that outlasted its critics.

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