This review was originally written for artsHub.
Written in 1960, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Fantasticks is a period piece. But in the Wooden Horse/Hayes Theatre Co production directed by Helen Dallimore, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s musical is brought forward in a clever and, for the most-part, considered staging which exudes a quirky kind of charm. Sitting somewhere between Romeo & Juliet and a Tim Burton film (think, Big Fish), with a dash of a twisted Elizabethan revenge drama, The Fantasticks is the story of two single fathers (Laurence Coy and Garry Scale) who want their children (Jonathan Hickey and Bobbie-Jean Harding) to fall in love, so pretend they’re in the midst of a bitter feud, and build a wall between their two houses. Unable to determine how to end the feud, they enlist the help of El Gallo, a Pirandellian narrator-cum-stage manager, who concocts a diversion to ensure everything ends well. Or does it?
Unfolding upon a set designed by Hugh O’Connor – grassy sward, white curtains, a couch – there’s little here to detract from the essential thrust of the story. O’Connor’s costumes are curiously non-period-specific yet recognisable enough to might as well be modern. Jeremy Silver’s sound design is subtle and nuanced, and means the cast are not individually miked, but rather allowed to sing in the same space as the band (here, simply the musical directors Hayden Barltrop and Glenn Moorhouse, on keyboards and electric/acoustic guitars respectively). Christopher Page’s lighting is colourful and moody, evocative of a storybook or a fairytale, and captures the brightness as well as the darkness of the story.
Essentially told in two halves, The Fantasticks unfolds in much the same way that Sondheim & Lapine’s Into The Woods does, with act one setting the story, and act two deconstructing it. Here, act one has the recognisable tunes, the ‘big moments,’ whereas act two has the dramatic moments, the ‘big scenes,’ if you will. It’s a clever move, but I couldn’t help feel that act two suffered a little bit, although this is no fault of Dallimore’s.
The dramatic centrepoint of act one, is the song ‘It Depends on What You Pay,’ perhaps more commonly known as ‘The Rape Song.’ Played here with a certain comic glee, it glosses over the seriousness of the (contemporary) connotations of the word ‘rape.’ In Jones’ book and lyrics, El Gallo uses the word ‘rape’ in its traditional literary definition, supplied in the show as “the attempted rape, the abduction, the seizure, the raid, the chase,” a plot-device found in many classic literary works. As societal attitudes towards sexual assault have changed during the course of The Fantasticks’ life, changes to the lyrics have been sought and made, with suitable changes to the song, and an additional number ‘Abductions’ being available from the licensers as an alternative choice for the ‘Rape Ballet’ number. Being aware of all of this then, it is curious – and perplexing, to say the least – that Dallimore has chosen the original instance of the musical, even if she and her musical directors have devised new musical arrangements. If, as Squabbalogic is doing with their production of ‘The Original Grease’ in April, Dallimore’s mission was to present the musical as a period-piece, as an example of where we’ve come from, and how much attitudes have changed in the fifty-odd years since it first appeared, then perhaps her inclusion of the original lyrics might be forgiven. But to present it in a (largely) contemporary manner, without making any mention of it or acknowledgment of its contentiousness (nor providing support material, should a patron require it), seems at odds with the otherwise commendable production.
The performances here are strong, with Jonathan Hickey and Bobbie-Jean Henning’s star-crossed lovers being a particularly endearing pair. There’s a naivety to Hickey’s performance which is charming, and a strength to Henning’s which works nicely in contrast. Laurence Coy and Garry Scale, as the respective parents (and inept thespians) are similarly endearing, providing some welcome comic-relief at times, but they are also more than mere caricatures in a world that seems ripped straight from the pages of a storybook (albeit a somewhat dark one). Martin Crewes’ El Gallo, the narrator-cum-Pirandellian stage-manager exudes suave charm and dangerous cool, and brings an edge of menace to the otherwise bubbly score.
I’ve been sitting on this for the past day, trying to work out where I stand in relation to the show as a whole, taking everything into account. There is charm here, certainly, but the more I think about the show as a whole, the more ‘It Depends on What You Pay’ keeps playing over and again, and the more I am uncomfortable with its lyrics, its ramifications, its undiluted inclusion. And even though the performances, the economic-but-effective direction, and the musical arrangements are memorable, that one song still will not budge.
“What at night [seemed] oh-so-scenic, may be cynic in the light,” and it’s certainly not as fantastick as it all seemed last night.