I deplore The Fantasticks. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's hyper-popular, record-breaking chamber musical is on my short list of shows I wish had never been written -- just below Cats and a few notches up from anything adapted from a Disney cartoon. I've endured this show numerous times over the years, and this season has been cursed with not one, but two productions of the troublesome tuner Stagebrush Theatre flogged us with its relentlessly upbeat version in September so I'm especially cranky about having to sit through it twice in three months.
Still, I'd be remiss in not noting that Arizona Theatre Company's current production of The Fantasticks is the best I've seen. Fans of the show and they are legion will be delighted with how well its familiar score is sung, and with the way its plodding clods are charmingly enacted. There may even be people who will find Drew Boughton's fanciful set a morass of plastic grass surrounding the biggest, ugliest plastic tree you'll ever see something other than cheap-looking and tacky.
This is a first-class Fantasticks. Theatergoers who aren't averse to treacly musicals or put to sleep by arch (and endless) references to Old Will will enjoy its brisk production and lush orchestration. Anyone who witnessed this show during its 41-year run in New York and didn't attempt suicide afterward will want to revisit its simple story, based on Les Romanesques, Edmond Rostand's play about a couple of young, ill-fated lovers.
Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe
Continues through January 19. Call 602-256-6899.
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Director David Ira Goldstein understands that a big part of The Fantasticks' charm (for those of us who don't get cramps at the mere mention of its name) lies in the show's endless riffs on itself, and he's crafted a lot of sweet side-glances at the show's presentationalism that are fun to witness. Most amusing are the repeated references to puppet-show imagery and a couple of goofs on rock 'n' roll during Mortimer's famous death scene. Goldstein's grandest nudge-and-wink comes when, toward the end of this oft-told tale, the set melts away to reveal the bowels of the theater an odd but interesting representation of the clarity that the players acquire in the course of the story. Another surprise is Goldstein's swapping of the iffy rape sequence for the little-heard "It Depends on What You Pay," a song written for one of the show's later national tours that better displays the talents of its principals.
Aside from Apollo Dukakis' wonderful performance as Henry the dumb-show master, my other favorite element of this production is also its most incongruous. During Matt's big number, "I Can See It," the stage burns with neon signage meant to suggest a tawdry red light district -- an effect that's unsupported by the text and appears utterly out of place.
David K. Mickelsen's simple costuming a keen letter sweater for Matt, a pristine shirtdress for Luisa -- is just right. Danny Bolero's oily El Gallo is appropriately rakish, and Julia Tilley's likable light opera Luisa is well-matched by the aw-shucks charm of Timothy Fitz-Gerald. The all-important interplay between the cast and the Mute, who must witness and respond to every moment of the proceedings, is well assayed by Carmen Yurich. And Norman Large and Frank Kopyc's hat-and-cane routine during "Plant a Radish" almost made me forget how much I dislike this show.
My theory is that The Fantasticks, which ran off-Broadway for four decades, is so popular because its narrator provides a blow-by-blow of what's happening throughout, so the audience never has to think. Slothful theatergoers who want to be spoon-fed their stories aren't new, but this tricked-out and thoughtful productions is. If you absolutely must see The Fantasticks, you might as well see this one.