It was nearly four decades ago, in New York’s Greenwich Village, that I first saw “The Fantasticks” with a group of my fellow University of Texas alumni. Also U.T. graduates, the show’s composers Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (lyrics) were on hand to greet we “Texas Exes” at a Village Gate reception. A short time later, I had the pleasure of seeing another production, at Connecticut’s Wesport Country Playhouse, with Elliot Gould and Liza Minnelli in the leads. Advertised as “the martini dry musical,” The Fantasticks had opened in May of 1960 and would become New York’s most enduring show as it continued its run until January of 2002 with a record 17,162 performances.
Now, even as a new production has opened in New York, The Lone Star State had a wonderful taste of the fun in the recent production from Houston’s Texas Repertory Theatre. Nicely directed by Craig A. Miller, the show had able musical direction from talented pianist, Patricia Rabaza leading her fine orchestra in the lilting and lovely tunes. From the cheerful “Overture” through the familiar “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” the music always seems well-matched with this tale of “a boy, a girl, and the story of their love.” Regrettably, the modest printed program provided did not list the order of songs in the piece. But the charming scenic/lighting designs of Robert Eubanks give us the atmosphere of a small traveling carnival, on the stage of which the events play out. And there is further charm in the simple costumes (designer, Fernando Zamudio), which look like they popped out of antique postcards.
Punctuating the proceedings, as a cheerful and bright-eyed clown, is Steven Piechocki in the role of The Mute. He has numerous comic moments (some reminiscent of Red Skelton or Marcel Marceau) showing his strength as a comedic mime while toying with the audience. Some of these segments were overextended and would have had greater impact in shorter form. The simple plot has the boy and girl as next-door neighbors falling in love. Meanwhile, their respective fathers, Hucklebee, (Mark X. Laskowski as the father of the boy), and Bellomy, (David Devaney Jr. as the father of the girl) have decided the youngsters are a good match, and plan to spark their love by building a wall to keep them apart. The fathers are a wonderful pair onstage, harmonizing playfully in songs like “Never Say ‘No’,” and “Plant A Radish” while at the same time moving beautifully onstage with straw hats and the pleasant choreography of Stephen Blaschke.
Joshua Estrada capably played the part of the boy (Matt). The very talented and lovely Alison Luff beautifully carried off the role of the girl (Luisa). Her singing was exceptional. And speaking of fine voices, Steven Fenley was most impressive and commanding as the ringmaster, El Gallo. When his rich baritone tackles the opening “Try to Remember,” it is clear that poignant and thoughtful theatre lies before us. The two fathers hire El Gallo to arrange abduction of the girl, and while discussing price he joins the dads in the amusing song, “It Depends on What You Pay.” Fenley and Estrada have a fine duet of “I Can See It,” while Estrada and Miss Luff offer a “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” full of wonder and warmth, and a gentle and touching “They Were You.”
Adding to the fun we have Michael Steinbach as Henry and Jeffrey S. Lane as Mortimer, a couple of aging and dusty traveling performers. Mortimer is an expert at dying on stage, and Henry is best at bungling Shakespearean dialogue. But there is no bungling in the Texas Repertory telling of this offbeat but timeless tale of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Predictable? Perhaps, but there were enough surprises to make it New York’s longest running show.
For information about future Texas Repertory productions, call 281-583-7573, or visit www.TexRepTheatre.org.