Fantastick Flop

The Fantasticks is not. What begins as a promising rerun quickly becomes -- somewhere after its third or fourth musical number -- just another small-time production of a big-deal show. Pleasant performances and familiar tunes aren't enough to elevate this tuneful repeat, and so Stagebrush Theatre's season opener winds up as little more than an umpteenth presentation of the show that refused to die.

The Fantasticks played forever in New York. The Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt tuner opened off-Broadway in 1960 and closed 41 years later, making it the longest-running musical in the history of the civilized world. Along the way, The Fantasticks ceased being simply another popular musical and became a landmark, an attraction that New Yorkers afforded a wide berth and that tourists flocked to.

Its simple story is based on Edmond Rostand's play Les Romanesques, with broad references to Shakespeare, particularly in its riffs on Romeo and Juliet, its endless nature metaphors, and its play-within-a-play structure. It's about a young couple, Matt and Luisa, and their fathers, who invent a Montague-Capulet-style feud to trick the kids into marrying. Various tune-filled tribulations befall the newlyweds, who emerge unscathed and still singing.

The Stagebrush production, directed and choreographed by Christine O'Grady, impersonates the original with its basic set, simple costumes, and an eight-actor cast backed by only harp and piano. Most of these players perform competently, but they do so in an overmiked, underfed production.

Timothy Justin, as The Narrator/El Gallo, has the choicest role, if only because he gets to stalk the stage in a black cape and croon the show's oft-covered signature song, "Try to Remember." He sings beautifully but underplays each of his scenes, and all of his emoting is aimed directly into the audience. As the young lovers, Lauren Okun Hengl and Jeffrey Driskill are well-matched; both sing capably but bring little emotion to their roles. Driskill's is the most versatile voice in the cast; he handles sweet ballads ("Soon It's Gonna Rain") and up-tempo scorchers ("This Plum Is Too Ripe") with equal skill. But when he isn't singing, he isn't doing much else.

The bumbling shenanigans of Bret Anderson and Hal Semmens, who play a pair of paid actors, provide an annoying distraction from the rest of the cast's inadequacies. And O'Grady, like so many Fantasticks directors, has opted to retain the maddening miming of The Mute, a narrative role enacted with as much style as possible by poor Leslie Haddad. Miming was cute and innovative when this show first bowed; today it's tired and hard to watch.

Among O'Grady's other blunders is her claustrophobic staging: Much of the action is shoved center-stage, despite the production's vast, roomy platform. A comic sword fight has been staged without benefit of comedy or any athletic choreography. And the halfhearted soft-shoe steps attempted by the cast of non-dancers adds nothing to the show's sophisticated songs, which are happily boosted by fine accompaniment from musical director Jonathan Ivie and harpist David M. Ice.

These fellows can't play away the show's sonic flaws, which are amplified by shrill body-miking that registers every spoken line too loudly, or brighten a stage whose lighting often leaves its cast in shadows. In the end, the most colorful thing about this production is the floor of its stage, which is perpetually littered with bright confetti.