As a production, The Fantasticks, appears simple to mount—with no scenery other than basic props, minimal costumes and a two-instrument "orchestra"—but the music is complicated and difficult to sing. Director Barbara Krajkowski of the Women's Theater Company has assembled a very talented cast (with some outstanding newcomers joining seasoned veterans) that fills the little black box theater at the Parsippany Community Center with delicious melodies, terrific and appropriately campy acting, and a thoroughly polished and bright production perfect to open the troupe's twentieth season! (Above L-R: Lea Antolini, Marc G. Dalio, Bridget Burke Weiss, Michael Restaino, Chelsea Friedlander, Lynn Hart, J.C. Hoyt, Scott Tyler—the entire cast of The Fantasticks)
The little 1960s musical is Pyramus and Thisbe (the play-withi-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) meets Romeo and Juliet meets Our Town, proving that there really are only seven plots in the world! Authors Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones have utilized theatrical devices from every genre of classic theater from commedia dell’arte to Shakespearean conceits to everything in between to tell the funny, bittersweet tale of the frustrations and ultimate joys of love—a theme bobby soxers, 1960s flower children and even today's cyberkids can relate to.
The troupe has made a few little changes to the script. Foremost, this being the Women's Theater Company, the two plotting fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, have been changed to two scheming mothers, Huck and Belle! And Krajkowski sure knows how to move eight adult actors around the small playing space without getting in each other's way. Using props from a trunk (ably gathered by prop master Erica Conrad Stepper), curtains hung between metal poles, chairs and stools, scene changes are effortless. Best of all, the audience enters the playwrights’ imaginations and become partners in “making” the play! (Note: the curtain with The Fantasticks written on it came from the Neil's New Yorker dinner theater's production of the show in 1974; it was found in someone's basement!)
The cast Krajkowski has chosen is uniformly superb. As El Gallo, the mysterious and exotic narrator, Marc G. Dalio has the looks of a matinee idol and a voice and stage manner to match. He’s the center of attention whenever he’s on stage, filling it with his sense of style and great stage presence. J.C. Hoyt is superb as the worn-out and bumbling “Old Actor,” a role he played in the original production! His long association with Paul Barry's precursor of today's Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey serves him in good stead as he recites bits and pieces of Shakespeare, albeit hilariously, mixing them up and stitching odd bits together! As his sidekick, the Indian oddly named Mortimer, Scott Tyler plays a mean death scene. The two of them bring down the house with their high jinks and snappy patter. (Above left: El Gallo shows Luisa the horrors of the world through a rose-colored mask.)
Chelsea Friedlander absolutely glows as Luisa, the quintessential ingénue whose starry-eyed wonder at becoming a woman is communicated by her large eyes and expressive face. As her callow counterpart Matt, Michael Restaino is terrific too; a bit tentative at first, he gained confidence as the play progressed, reaching a high point in his rendition of "I Can See It," as he sets out to learn more about life. Both young actors have beautiful voices (especially in the lovely duet, "Soon It's Gonna Rain") and move around the stage with grace and confidence. Lynn Hart and Bridget Burke Weiss are the lovable meddlesome mothers Huck and Belle, whose expressive faces and body English leave the audience in stitches. Rounding out the cast is Lea Antolini as the ubiquitous Mute who communicates so much by merely raising an eyebrow or a subtle gesture; without even saying a word she manages to act!
Todd Mills' set reminds us that we are in the fairy tale world of the theater, evoking the real world at the same time. Kelly Easterling and Nick Downham's lighting design communicates the various times of day and highlights the action very well, and Caitlin Cisek and Scaramouche's costumes aptly communicate character. Musical accompaniment by Warren Helms (keyboard) and Tim Metz (bass) was sprightly and wonderful, but at times it was a tad to loud and drowned out the actors. It could be dialed back a notch so we don't miss a word of Tom Jones' clever (and knowing) lyrics.
The closing in 2001 of The Fantasticks, after a 41-year-run, marked the end of an era, although due to popular demand it has reopened back on Off-Broadway. But you don't have to travel into the city (and pay tolls and parking) to see this little gem. In fact, take your kids and your grandkids, your spouse and your friends, for even if you’ve already seen The Fantasticks, the repeat experience is every bit as satisfying as the first time—and if it is your first time, this engaging and polished production will fill your heart with joy.
The Fantasticks will be performed through September 30 at the Women's Theater Company's residence in the Parsippany Community Center, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha. For information and tickets, call 973.316.3.33 or visit online at www.womenstheater.org .