There is a lot of leeway when staging the 1960 Harvey Schmiidt (music) Tom Jones (lyrics) “The Fantasticks.” The show, now at the intimate Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest, is among the best productions I’ve seen of a play that normally makes my “least favorite” list. I’ve seen it overly long and boring and overly clever and gimmicky.
However, under the direction of Pat Murphy (“A Christmas Carol,” Deathtrap”) Citadel’s show charmingly mixes old-timey, unsophisticated character portrayals with humorous, burlesque-style staging, set design and movement.
Begun life as a misbegotten western in 1956, it was rewritten and became a staple of theaters and schools across the country. Opened May 3,1960 it ran for 17,162 performances before it closed Jan. 13, 2002 supposedly making it the longest running show in American theater history.
Loosely based on the French “Les Romanesques” (The Romancers) by Edmond Rostand, it is an allegorical musical whose premise is that when parents say “no” the kids will take the opposite direction and that dreams need a reality check.
In “The Fantasticks,” two neighboring fathers, Hucklebee (John B. Boss) and Bellomy, (Bill Chamberlain), want their offspring, Matt (Jonah Cochin) and Luisa (Aurora Penepacker) to fall in love and marry.
To promote their idea, they pretend they are feuding and build a wall between their houses as a tricky obstacle. The wall is a metaphorical stick held by The Mute (Kristina Meima).
To explain and assist in the action is El Galo (Brian Hupp) who is somewhat like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” narrator. But he also becomes involved by orchestrating a fake kidnapping of Luisa as a way to make Matt a hero and end the false feud.
Mortimer (John Benischek) and Henry (Henry Odum) are El Galo’s bumbling over-the-hill actors/assistants in the kidnapping.
A moon bringing out the romantic side of Luisa and Matt, hung by El Galo in Act I, is exchanged for a blazing sun in Act II.
No spoiler alert here but know that what was romanticized in Act I disappears in the daylight of Act II. Dreams are explored, tried and turn to disillusionment before a new reality dawns. Think of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
Eric Luchen’s scenic design and Emily Brink’s costumes perfectly match the character types and representational setting without distracting from the plot.
Audiences, particularly the older crowd, will recognize the songs, “Try to Remember” and “Soon it’s Gonna Rain,” from the show. The orchestra, Talar Khosdeghian (alternating with Kaileyh Rockwell at piano, Michael Maganuco at harp and Eric von Holst at bass are excellent and are visible at the back of the stage.
The question rises in this day of #MeToo and women empowerment movements – is the show too dated to still be entertaining.
Luisa who saw herself as a princess even when still in high school, might look more to Wonder Woman today although little girls still sometimes dress as princesses at Halloween. And the fathers’ understanding of how kids react to “no” is likely to be appreciated by parents in the audience.
Plus, young people still have dreams.
DETAILS: “The Fantasticks” is at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd. Look for a school administration building south of IL Hwy 60), Lake Forest, through March 8, 2020. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including one intermission. For tickets and more information call (847) 735-8554 or visit Citadel Theatre.
For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago