The Women’s Theater Company launched its in classic style Friday night at the with a respectful nod to another theatrical institution—“The Fantasticks.”
Director Barbara Krajkowski was a fan of the original production of this beguiling little musical, which spent a record 42 consecutive years Off-Broadway (from 1960 to 2002). It took her this long to finally direct it herself, and she’s gifted us with a production that not only pays tribute to its past, but manages to put an appropriate — and successful — Women’s Theater Company spin on what so many of us have seen before.
Jerry Orbach famously starred in the original cast as El Gallo, the dashing bandit who also serves as the narrator. Through his cynical eyes, we see theatrically abstract love bloom between two young lovers, Luisa and Matt. What they don’t know is that their coupling was manipulated by their interfering parents, who feigned a feud and built a wall between their neighboring properties in an ill-advised yet successful attempt at reverse psychology.
They seal the deal by hiring El Gallo to stage an attempted kidnapping of Luisa to give Matt a chance to play the hero and unite their houses. But when their conspiracy is revealed, the children rebel, split up and take their lives in different directions, gaining painful but valuable life experience before they find themselves back in each other’s arms, older and wiser enough to face the real world together.
Please forgive the spoilers but if you haven’t seen “The Fantasticks” at least once, you are in the extreme minority. In addition to its Off-Broadway tenure, there have been more than 11,000 productions over the last 50 years, including such unique venues as the White House and the Peking Opera.
The story, for that matter, is thin, and the characters are broadly drawn. So knowing what happens is of little importance. If ever there were a musical where the fun is in the journey, not the destination, this is it. And for those who have not yet seen it, this would be a good place to start.
Even better, if you have seen it—and surely there are those who have seen it more than onc —Krajkowski’s take on it is likely something you have not seen before.
While the script calls for the parents to be dads, Krajkowski has gone with moms, and it works so well you wonder why they didn’t do it that way in the first place. Lynn Hart and Bridget Burke Weiss seize the unique opportunity and clearly have fun playing the moms, whose fake feud festers into a real one as the romantic moonlight mood of the first act gives way to the cynical daylight of Act Two.
Marc G. Dalio, who has shown a great deal of range in past musicals here, is a good fit as El Gallo. He has a pure voice that suits the play’s signature song—“Try to Remember”—but adds a touch of dramatic reflection as well, almost speaking through it at times. And, like the original El Gallo, the late Jerry Orbach, he’s a handsome devil and convincingly seductive, which adds to the pain of watching Luisa when he exploits her crush to steal from her.
His victims don’t fare quite as well. Michael Restaino is convincing enough as an innocent boy in the throes of puppy love but can’t quite break through to bitter adult. As Luisa, Chelsea Friedlander commands an impressively trained operatic voice, but needs to tone down her dialogue, especially in a space as small as the Parsippany Playhouse, which, by the way, was nearly full on opening night. Boy and Girl, however, acquit themselves nicely at the end with a tender delivery of the sweet “They Were You.”
The cherry on top, however, is regional favorite J.C. Hoyt, making his company debut as Henry, one of two actors of dubious resume who El Gallo hires for his staged abduction. How good is Hoyt in the comic-relief role of the aging actor who tries in vain to summon his classical training for El Gallo’s gig? Good enough to have played the part for the last nine months of “The Fantasticks” Off-Broadway run, and he nearly runs away with the show despite only appearing in a few scenes. He doesn’t only chew the scenery, he devours it, leaving the audience gasping and laughing at a positively electric performance.
Scott Tyler also gets his share of laughs as Mortimer, Henry’s sidekick and an expert at dying onstage. Lea Antolini-Lid, meanwhile, puts her considerable skills for physical comedy to good use as the Mute, who doubles as the Wall and a prop-mover, but unfortunately doesn’t get to share her lovely voice.
Also worth the price of admission is the familiar score, normally done as piano or piano and harp, handled here beautiful by the veteran team of Music Director Warren Helms on keyboards and Tim Metz on bass.
Presales have been high for this production, which likely won’t disappoint the many who are looking forward to a fantastic start to a Parsippany cultural milestone and a fine launch of the busy fall theater season in North Jersey.
The Women’s Theater Company production of “The Fantasticks” runs Sept. 14 to 30 at the Parsippany Community Center’s Parsippany Playhouse, 1130 Knoll Road, Parsippany. Tickets $20, $18 seniors. For online ticket purchase or information, visit www.womenstheater.org or call 973-316-3033.