Currently we are hearing a great deal about walls – whether they increase security or not, whether they are good for trade or not, etc. However the theme is not new; for example, the Roman poet Ovid tells a tale, regarded as old even during his day, of two Babylonian youth who long for each other, Pyramus and Thisby. Due to a feud between their families, the two would-be lovers are separated by a wall and can only speak to each other a small gap.
Hundreds of years later, a play was written about the two frustrated lovers. In it, the character of Peter Squentz, the Schoolmaster of the village Rumpelskirchen, gathers together some artisans in order to perform an amateur version of this play to present before a visiting king. How should one represent the wall, the company wonders. “Let’s make a paper wall!” one suggests. Another proposes that the wall must be played by a person who explains to the audience that he “represents Wall.” “But a wall cannot speak!” interjects another. During the course of the eventual staging of “Pyramus and Thisby,” the would-be actors forget their lines, break into fights, and confuse illusion for reality.
If what I have related above sounds both familiar yet strangely different from part of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is in fact from a seventeenth-century play by Gryphius, Absurda Comica, which remixes parts of Shakespeare’s play for its own time and place. The Fantasticks, currently playing through February 2 at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, reworks these classic themes yet again, in order to provide an inverted parody of Romeo and Juliet. Whereas in both Romeo and Juliet and the plays mentioned above walls (both figurative and social) are used to keep lovers apart, in The Fantasticks this convention is turned on its head: two fathers desire their children, Luisa and Matt, to wed, so the fathers build a wall to keep the children apart, calculating that youthful perversity will lead to romance blooming!
In this musical, literary allusions abound. The Fantasticks is itself loosely based on both Shakespeare and Les Romanesques by Edmond Rostand, a French play from the turn of the last century. Additional classical and literary references are made to Homer’s Cassandra and Dante’s Beatrice. The musical’s noble literary heritage has paid off; The Fantasticks is now thought to be the longest running show in the history of English-language musicals, perhaps best known for its standard “Try to Remember.”
Fine acting in the Little Theatre production abounds. The parents of Luisa and Matt, Bellamy and Hucklebee, are well-played by Stephen P. Yednock and Janice Zucker. Those familiar with other productions or the film version (released in 2000) may be surprised that Hucklebee is now the mother of Matt, rather than the father. This is an effective change, however, as the male-female feud which develops between Matt and Luisa now has a parallel with the parents as well, providing an interesting twist to the proceedings.
Yet, while the acting is good, it is the music which is really the star, and here the production is at its best. Christopher Oberly as the bandit El Gallo gives us an excellent version of a “Try to Remember,” and Rachel Hogan, as Luisa, has a sweet voice with impressive range in her solo “Much More.” She again is heard to full advantage dueting with an equally-talented Luis Montes (Matt) on “Soon Its Going to Rain,” the second most-famous song in the show.
Staging is also done well. This production of The Fantasticks uses the modest-sized stage of the Little Theatre effectively. As is traditional with the show, the cast is small and props minimal. The lighting design is excellent, however: light and patterns are expertly used to create ambiance, especially in the fantasy portion which works a bit like a Magic Theatre – “for madman only,” using a Steppenwolf allusion. Costumes are well done, especially a nineteenth-century frockcoat for Matt. The sound mix is very good, and the ensemble of piano, harp, and percussion very effective. The harpist (in some performances Kristen Jepperson and in others Laura Stokes) is also skilled at using the harp strings to produce interesting sound effects!
My impression of the audience leads this reviewer to suspect that, for many, The Fantasticks is a well-known friend of many years whom they were delighted to meet yet again. Eleanore Tapscott, the director, writes in the program notes that “The Fantasticks was one of the first musicals (along with A Chorus Line) in which I knew all the songs before ever seeing a production.” For those new to The Fantasticks, a cursory glance at a plot summary on the Internet or a viewing of the aforementioned film version may prove helpful to preview before seeing this show, which – with a certain degree of symbolism and a show-within-a-show – may be a little confusing upon first acquaintance. That said, this production of The Fantasticks provides a fantastical journey through popular music, familiar literary landscapes, and love mingled with realism and a touch of magic. It also provides interesting insights into how walls can have unexpected consequences, both positive and negative, upon those who build them!