Oh, my. 1960 (and what passed for groundbreaking then) was a very long time ago, wasn't it? The longest-running musical ever in the whole world, The Fantasticks, manages to make that very clear while still demonstrating what made it so popular. (Some of that success has got to be mere momentum, though, I swear.)
There's a wise, mysterious narrator, two families in an isolated garden, and their two young-adult children, who find that they need to suffer and make mistakes before they can settle down and be happy together. It sounds a bit like the book of Genesis, but it's officially based on a play by Edmund Rostand that premièred in 1894.
There are allusions to other works, too (Shakespeare and older), some of which are kind of funny. There are several dumb jokes, too, which help redeem the show from appearing to be just another parody of avant-garde creativity like the Hamlet staged in an abandoned warehouse in Hamlet II , or every scene set in a beat coffeehouse ever, or much of my undergraduate career.
The best thing about Desert Stages Theatre's current production of The Fantasticks, hands down, is The Old Actor, a character played by Randy Hesson. O.A. and his partner, Mortimer, are a chipper if unfortunate pair in whose aroma you'll discern a dash of Hamlet's traveling players and the prince's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as the pirates who attack them; a scoop of Bottom the hammy amateur from A Midsummer Night's Dream; a sprinkle of every devious corrupter of innocents from Pinocchio to X-Men; and a pinch of a Batman villain's dim henchmen.
Hesson rolls all those influences into a lanky, shambling ball of man-dust and drives the show ahead of him like a flock of sheep from the moment he first appears. In his presence, I began to believe that anything might happen, which was a great relief, since the setting, plot, and characters of this script are sketchy, minimal, and symbolic, respectively. (And I know that's the whole point, and for nearly 50 years it's been a lot of people's cup of tea, so that's cool.)
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Mark Hackman also does a great job with the iconic narrator, El Gallo, who gets to sing the famous, fabulous ballad "Try to Remember" and act as liaison between the audience and the other, pawn-like characters. Director KatiBelle Collins has brought the whole company to a harmonious dynamic level; each performer is comfortably engaged in the production's version of reality and draws and concedes focus when appropriate.
Katy Cally's choreography was just right, too, reinforcing the dreamy mood on the Actor's Café's weensy slice of stage. It's great, by the way, to see a "small musical" in a space that suits it. No one's more than four rows away from the action, and the actors aren't amplified and don't need to be.
Wish list: That the piano part of the recorded accompaniment would be turned down. (We were seated under a speaker that sometimes drowned out vocalists who were farther away.) That someone would give Nathan Dunn a better haircut. That the rhyming parts of the dialogue wouldn't be plowed through like a bean field; it's as though the cast was told to entirely ignore the meter and music. But, on the whole, this is an enjoyable version of a tricky and near-sacred play.
The Fantasticks continues through Sunday, October 11, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Actor's Café, 4720 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Call 480-483-1664 for tickets, $15 (student rush price) to $25.