Since it opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse on a quaint residential block in New York’s Greenwich Village on May 3, 1960, The Fantasticks has become a theatrical landmark of sorts. This boy-meets-girl story, filled with dramatically and comically induced obstacles and resolutions, was an off-Broadway hit that eventually became the longest continuously running musical on any professional stage worldwide for 42 years and 17,162 performances, sustained by decades of sentimental and thoroughly satisfied tourists. It has been dismissed as thin, trite, and kitschy, and later in its run it was called out for the use of the word “rape” to mean “abduction,” as in ancient times, and for its Native American stereotypes. But it’s been a career boost to young performers from Jerry Orbach to Kristin Chenoweth and a perennial crowd pleaser.
The show was revived off-Broadway in 2006 for an additional 11-year run, with revisions by Tom Jones (no relation to the Welsh pop singer), who wrote the original book and lyrics. And then, last year, the Flint Repertory Theatre in Michigan reimagined the two young lovers as teenage boys, and their feuding dads as single moms. It was this latter-day version, authorized by Jones, that inspired David Drake, artistic director of the Provincetown Theater, to make The Fantasticks his company’s summer centerpiece and give it its East Coast premiere. It’s playing there now through Aug. 31, casting a sweetly ironic spell on a whole new audience.
Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt loosely based the original Fantasticks on the 1894 French play The Romancers by Edmond Rostand (of Cyrano de Bergerac fame), and it has a strong meta-literary bent, with elements of Romeo and Juliet and other Shakespeare plays, as well as Voltaire’s Candide and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The story is archetypal with a self-conscious, modern twist: the two young lovers are neighbors who grew up with a wall between them, created by their faux-feuding parents as a reverse psychology tactic to get them to fall in love. And the plan works, till the end of the Act One. Act Two tests the fairy-tale romance with real-world temptation and adventure and a dollop of knowing cynicism. The happily-ever-after ending is tempered by this, but not enough to crush everyone’s heartwarming faith in love.
There’s a lot of sophistication in the telling of this tale, for which The Fantasticks rarely gets credit. The physical comedy and stagecraft can obscure its central metaphor: that theater and make-believe have the power to shape our youthful passions and teach us complicated truths. Drake’s consummate direction takes all that to heart, gently adapting the Beat-era musical to a site-specific, queer Outer Cape setting, complete with a dock and a backdrop of Lewis Wharf.
The lovers are Lewis Bellamy (Peter Toto) and Matt Hucklebee (Harrison Fish), whose moms, played respectively by Megan Amorese and Sara Fitzpatrick, forbid them from seeing each other, secretly hoping for a love match. The idea of saying “No” to manipulate a “Yes” feels quaintly midcentury and sitcom-like, but Drake and his co-conspirators have applied such a light, charming touch to the material that the winking ironies never feel awkward or dated.
Narrating the story, clad in a motorcycle helmet and leather, El Gallo (Beau Jackett) makes a strutting entrance and opens the show by singing the lushly melodic earworm theme, “Try to Remember.” He works with the moms to stage a fake abduction of Lewis, so Matt can “save” him and cement their bond. To make this play-within-the-play come true, El Gallo enlists the help of Henry Albertson (Jay Baer) and his sidekick Mortimer (Kenneth Lonergan, Provincetown’s former town crier), who fill the stage with vaudevillian high jinks.
Jackett is a charismatic and shrewd El Gallo, and his singing is commanding, as is Toto’s. The moms are both hilarious and high energy, and the young lovers capture just the right romantic spirit, alternately starry-eyed and disillusioned.
It’s difficult to overstate how delightful and perfectly restrained the production actually is, with its inventive seaside set, designed by Ellen Rousseau; its three-musician orchestra, directed by John Thomas; the costumes by Carol Sherry and lighting by Stephen Petrilli; and the icing on this theatrical cake, the playful props by Thom Markee, which embody rain, snow, Sun, Moon, gardens, and much more. Chantheoun Varon Collins, who plays a cello in Thomas’s trio, is also the Mute, a multipurpose visible stagehand character, adding a hint of Bunraku to the mechanics.
Such a curlicued confection as this, with a contemporary queer update, could easily be played to camp extremes, exaggerating its silliness or melodrama. That might make for some unholy laughs, but it would be a cop-out. What Drake does is far more difficult, which is to rely on the intrinsic charm of the Fantasticks story and to discover the joy in the theatrical tools at hand and the performers, young and old. That plays to the strengths of a community theater, and it’s a summer treat for Provincetown and the Outer Cape.
A Romance for All Seasons
The event: The Fantasticks, a reimagined version of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical
The time: Through Aug. 31, Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St.
The cost: $60.25/$80.25, including fees; $30 under 30 available at provincetowntheater.org or 508-487-7487