The New York stage has produced a lot of unlikely success stories. Few are as unlikely as The Fantasticks. The small-scale musical quietly premiered at Manhattan's Sullivan Street Playhouse in May 1960, and proceeded to run on the same off-Broadway stage for an unbelievable 42 years. (By comparison, Broadway's current record-holder for longest-running show is The Phantom of the Opera, which has managed to keep going, amazingly and depressingly, for a little more than two decades.)
The success of The Fantasticks is not limited to Manhattan. The New York Times calls it one of the most widely produced musicals in the world, with more than 11,000 productions to date. According to the Times, productions have been staged in 67 countries and all 50 states, and some of the show's original investors have seen a 24,000 percent return on their investment.
Given all those fat numbers, you might assume that the show features a particularly compelling story, or maybe a raft of memorable songs. You would be wrong. The musical is so frequently produced in large part because it's relatively easy for actors to sing, and even easier on a theater's budget. Written for only one or two instruments and requiring just eight performers, The Fantasticks doesn't attempt a great deal of spectacle. It's resolutely modest in every way, with a simple storyline and a nonthreatening tone that lands on the sweet side of bittersweet. Adventurous it most certainly is not.
As for the songs themselves, you'd be hard pressed to hum anything other than the opening number, an earworm-cum-standard called "Try to Remember." The rest of the music is mostly forgettable, with lyrics more precious than clever. ("What at night seems oh so scenic/May be cynic much too soon," the characters tell us more than once. Whether or not you're able to make any sense of that, you can chalk me up as a cynic. Or at least not scenic. Or something.)
I'm frankly surprised to find the show at SF Playhouse, which tends to avoid anything resembling a chestnut. Up to this point, the company's 2009-2010 season has been a showcase for inventive new comedies like the devilish farce First Day of School and the mixed-bag horror-comedy Slasher. To cap things off with The Fantasticks is so square that it's almost edgy.
The production certainly makes sense from a programming perspective — it never hurts to have a summertime show that will bring in the tourists — and director Bill English swears that the musical is his all-time favorite. Even so, The Fantasticks feels like the province of unimaginative community theaters, not risk-taking companies like this one.
The production attempts to look bolder than it is. English sets the play in what appears to be a postapocalyptic landscape, with the characters scrambling around on a charred junk heap in costumes right out of Blade Runner. This is an overcalculation. Imagine setting The Comedy of Errors in a gulag, and you're on the right track: The slight material doesn't fit the heavy concept. If anything, the play's triteness is magnified when set against the prospect of genuine suffering and loss.
Loosely based on Edmond Rostand's 1894 play Les Romanesques, the musical tracks the roller-coaster courtship of Matt (Jeremy Kahn) and Luisa (Sepideh Moafi), next-door neighbors whose parents have constructed a wall to separate them. The wall, however, is a ruse: The parents actually want the two to end up together, and they believe that "to manipulate children, you merely say 'No.'" What follows is a none-too-subtle allegory of love found, lost, and regained, with the lovers encountering a series of outlandish obstacles along the way, finding each other a little wiser in the end. (If you're already rolling your eyes, then you'd best just stay at home.)
The cast is mostly strong. In particular, Ray Reinhardt and Louis Parnell nearly steal the show as a couple of shady actors, and the two young leads bring considerable charm and energy to their roles. Tarek Khan is a redoubtable El Gallo. The only weak link here is Norman Munoz' Mute, a character who silently observes all the action. His antics in the background are a major distraction from what's happening in the foreground. (Consider this: My date had never seen The Fantasticks before, and if you were to base your knowledge of the play solely on his comments, you'd never guess that the story was about two kids in love. All he could talk about afterward was the nonstop mugging of the Mute.)
The Fantasticks has always been more or less critic-proof — a frothy little concoction with a pocketful of messages and one very hummable song. Its simplicity is at the core of its appeal. In the original New York production, the set was no more than a wooden platform under a cardboard moon, which changed to a cardboard sun in the second act. The show is "fantastic" in the original sense of that word — a work of fancy, of unreality. English's attempt to beef up its themes, to give it a harder edge by setting it in a dying world, only succeeds in overplaying the show's meager set of cards. Fans of the musical will likely be puzzled by the concept. Naysayers will find the material no more substantive than usual. In short, SF Playhouse has managed to take a perennial crowd-pleaser and change it into something that will please exactly no one.