Chances are every theater lover has some connection to The Fantasticks, the sweet bagatelle by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones that played off-Broadway for 42 years. And chances are every Fantasticks fan has some idea of how the show should be performed. Director Ed Corsi anticipates this in the program notes for his new production at Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, which deletes some of the stylistic elements audiences have come to expect.
“In our interpretation, we have … depart[ed] from the traditional commedia dell’arte approach,” Corsi writes, referring to the brand of Italian classical comedy from which many of our modern theatrical tropes are drawn. “We felt a modern audience would appreciate a more personal, conversational piece, to draw the audience into our world with naturalistic interaction, without removing the most integral part of the production: the magic.”
That’s great copy. And Corsi follows through on his intentions. The role of the Mute — who silently pantomimes the wall that divides the central lovers, Luisa (Morgan Billings Smith) and Matt (Justin Mazzella) — was excised. Costumes (by Ashleigh Poteat) skew conventional; Hucklebee (David Nikolas) and Bellomy (Paul Weagraff), feuding fathers, now wear Dockers and denim instead of Arlecchino-inspired pantaloons.
But instead of making Schmidt and Jones’s magical landscape seem universal, this approach flattens it. Without the outsized nods to theatrical tradition, The Fantasticks turns into just another commonplace love story, and the 57-year-old musical’s foundational cracks become more apparent than ever.
Human experience, minus charm
The Fantasticks attempts to capture the entire human experience in about two hours. Boy and girl meet cute, fall in love, get married, cleave apart, go on separate journeys of discovery, and wind up exactly where they’re meant to be: right where they started. The fathers represent the meddlesome influence of older generations, and the stock characters of the Old Actor and his assistant (Leonard C. Haas and Shamus Hunter McCarty) suggest the march of time, hurtling ever forward. There’s also a narrator (here played by Tim Rinehart), who expresses the show’s ethos in the instant-classic opening ballad, “Try to Remember.”
This should make for a pleasant evening, even for a hardened cynic like yours truly. I’ll even cop to feeling a few tears form as Rinehart’s dulcet baritone reminded the audience that “deep in December, it’s nice to remember / Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.” And the three-person onstage band — led by Jason Neri from the piano, and lifted by Joseph Pagani’s gorgeous harp — fills the tiny space with lovely instrumental music throughout.
But Corsi’s charm-free concept quickly grows tiresome. The lovers have rarely seemed so unappealing. Despite wonderful singing, Smith amps up Luisa’s poutiness to a fever pitch. The character should seem immature, not annoying. Mazzella looks and sounds the part of a handsome and ambitious young man, but his performance lacks necessary charm. They radiate little chemistry, even in the humorously hyperbolic duet “Metaphor,” which should do most of the work for them.
Nikolas and Weagraff often had coordination problems in roles that require pinpoint precision; Hucklebee and Bellomy should function like a well-oiled comedy team, but here they come across like a pair of understudies who just met. And although Rinehart finds some warm humor when he dons the disguise of the bandit El Gallo, his asides as the narrator are frustratingly deadpan.
The high points come from Haas and McCarty — perhaps because Corsi allows them to play the roles as written. Haas particularly vacillates between hamminess and tenderness with palpable poignancy. Perhaps some things are better left untouched.