Creating a musical theatre work that survives onstage for several decades is certainly no minor achievement.
The Fantasticks currently holds the title of longest-running musical in the world. It opened in New York City in 1960 and is currently playing an open-ended run off-Broadway at the Jerry Orbach Theatre (named in honour of The Fantasticks’ original lead performer).
Originally, it was due to close in April 2015, but two long-time fans of the show stepped in and pledged to keep the production running indefinitely. There’s no denying there’s some enduring love for The Fantasticks within the New York theatre community.
But the question is, while the work has enjoyed a long life overseas, will it be embraced by Australian audiences in 2016, most of whom will see the show for the first time? Is this something that will win favour with local theatregoers?
Penned by Harvey Schmidt and (another) Tom Jones, The Fantasticks is a loose adaption of Les Romanesques, a nineteenth century French piece by playwright and poet, Edmond Rostand. It tells the story of two fathers, living in neighbouring houses, who conspire to ensure their children fall in love. The plan succeeds, but their children later learn of their fathers’ deception, and their union disintegrates. The two teenagers separately venture out into the ‘real’ world and have scarring, formative experiences that bring them back together. The pair feels a love for one another more informed than that they knew before.
On examining the synopsis, it’s understandable one would conclude that this work is constructed around timeless themes that will never lessen in their importance, and that therefore The Fantasticks should hold up for all the ages as a classic in the musical theatre cannon.
But in reality, that’s far from the case, and that’s owing to several factors. The story is played via an allegorical narrative that lacks dynamism. It’s less than ideally structured. The scenes seem to exist in isolation and lack cohesion, despite a narrator’s presence.
In its early years, the score generated some commercial chart hits. But in 2016 and as a whole, the music is quaint and, aside from opening number ‘Try to remember’, memorable melodies are few and far between.
Instrumentation for the show has been updated. The usual practice is for The Fantasticks’ score to be played by harp and piano only. Here, director Helen Dallimore has decided on piano and guitar. It was a positive move in efforts to breathe new life into the tracks, but perhaps the further addition of percussion instruments (which has sometimes occurred in overseas productions) would have been a worthwhile endeavour to further enliven the score.
When it comes to the vocal deliveries, there’s an attempt to change things up again. Sweet opening number, ‘Try to remember’, is performed by narrator El Gallo, a role typically the domain of baritone singers. Here, seasoned actor Martin Crewes has stepped into El Gallo’s shoes, and offers something more like a strident pop vocal for the opener. It’s a strange choice, and arguably detracts from the beauty of the original track. Measures have been taken to make it edgy and sinister.
And while efforts have been made to modernise particular aspects of the piece, a decision to leave one aspect of the book intact in its 1960 incarnation is highly questionable. In concocting their plan to bring their children together, the two fathers engage the assistance of two actors to stage a ‘rape’ so that the son can rescue his love and elevate himself in her eyes and seal the deal. The term ‘rape’ is used repeatedly, but the author’s intention is that it takes on its traditional literary meaning – abduction.
As you’d expect, the use of the term ‘rape’ in The Fantasticks has attracted considerable criticism over time, prompting edits to the book so that Jones’ intentions are accurately reflected. Jones and Schmidt even composed an alternative musical piece in light of the controversy. No such changes have been adopted here, which is truly puzzling, given the opportunity to cause great offence to uninformed patrons, and the potential for their overall impression of the production to be coloured by a single choice.
That issue aside, however, we’re still left with a show that’s seen better days.
The characters are largely neither endearing nor sympathetic. And that’s not the fault of the cast, comprising five talented musical theatre actors. Crewes is a captivating performer who does as much as he’s able in the role of El Gallo. There’s something just vaguely reminiscent of The Cure’s Robert Smith in his portrayal (sans quintessential 80s rockstar hair). Bobbie-Jean Henning and Jonathan Hickey are convincing as the initially green and wide-eyed teenagers, whose journey hardens and disillusions them. Laurence Coy and Garry Scale are well received by the audience in providing the piece its lighter moments. But the players here can only do as much as the material will permit.
As to the technical aspects, Hugh O’Connor has kept it simple. The set is functional and the cast appropriately costumed. Jeremy Silver deserves recognition for his sound design, ensuring the level of amplification of instruments is well balanced with the performers’ unamplified vocals. Additionally, ambient sound welcomes patrons to the auditorium, in efforts to evoke atmosphere from the get-go.
Regardless of whether The Fantasticks endures in 2016 in mint condition, its history on the stage sets it apart from many other works of its day. Every year, producers around the world mount new works that quickly prove to be unsound investments (it’s fortunate if cast recordings surface to remind theatre lovers that those shows ever existed.) The Fantasticks may or may not find new fans in Sydney, but perhaps the cachet it’s achieved by surviving in the brutal world of musical theatre for so long makes it worth a visit to The Hayes on its own.
Currently playing at The Hayes Theatre, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Playing until Sunday 31 January
Tue-Thu 7.30, Sat 2pm and Sun 5pm: $55 for adults and $49 concession for students, MEAA and seniors
Fri & Sat 7.30pm: $59 for adults and $54 concession for students, MEAA and seniors
Tickets can be purchased here