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The Fantasticks, with its clever book and lively lyrics by Tom Jones and its marvelous music by Harvey Schmidt, is the world's longest-running musical. It opened at The Sullivan Street Playhouse Off Broadway on May 3, 1960, and closed on January 13, 2002, after 17,162 performances!
This whimsical and utterly charming "Parable About Love," which launched "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain" into the Top 40, is a sure bet for Raleigh Little Theatre's March 14-23 sojourn at A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.
"Thanks to theater-savvy family and friends," confesses RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons, "I became aware of 'The Fantasticks' shortly after it opened [in 1960]. I think I owned the cast album from the time it was available.
"The first production I ever saw," Fitz-Simons says, "was at The Flat Rock Playhouse (North Carolina's 'State' Theatre) during the summer of 1962 or 1963. I saw it at The Sullivan Street Playhouse (where it finally closed this year after a record breaking run of 42 years!) in New York City in 1964 or 1965.
"Since then," he says, "I have been involved, at least peripherally, in productions at the 'Unto These Hills' canteen series (1966?), and at the UNC Department of Dramatic Art (1967). I have probably seen 'The Fantasticks' several more times over the years (including once at The Fort Bragg Playhouse when 'The Girl's Father,' due to an unfortunate health emergency necessitated a last minute substitution of a very fine actress — and so the Father became a Mother, introducing an interesting, if somewhat bizarre, dynamic to the proceedings!"
Based on Les Romanesques (variously translated as The Romantics or The Fantasticks), an 1894 burlesque of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand (1868-1918), The Fantasticks focuses on the budding romance between a boy and the proverbial girl next-door. These two young and naive teenagers fall victim to an ingenious scheme concocted by their fathers, who secretly want their offspring to fall in love and marry.
They may not be able to agree on the proper amount of pruning and watering that their cherished gardens require, but these two wily old master gardeners know that there is nothing more tempting than "forbidden fruit." So, they pretend to feud, caution their children to avoid each other, and even erect a wall — mimed by The Mute (Steve Ackerman) — between their estates to keep their children apart.
Thus, the boy's father, Hucklebee (Timothy Cherry), and the girl's father, Bellomy (Don R. Smith), expertly employ reverse psychology to get 19-year-old Matt (Alan Seales) and 15-year-old Luisa (Heather Powell) to fall in love. To speed matters along, Bellomy and Hucklebee hire the famous bandit El Gallo (Clayton Earl Jackson) to attempt to "abduct" Luisa, so Matt can rush to her rescue, vanquish the villains, become a hero, and give the fathers a reason to end their feud and tear down the wall.
Fitz-Simons notes that "The characters are loosely based on the stock characters of the Commedia Del' Arte: The young lovers, the aged fathers, the dashing Captain, etc."
El Gallo (pronounced "El Guy-o") hires Henry the ancient character Actor (Brent Wilson) and Mortimer the Man Who Dies (Phil Lewis) to help him stage the fake abduction. Matt easily thwarts their clumsy attempt to kidnap Luisa, but he becomes such an insufferable braggart that Hucklebee and Bellomy decide to cut him down to size — by revealing that Matt's triumph was prearranged, bought and paid for by them.
Needless to say, Matt and Luisa do not live happily ever after. They quarrel and break up. They decide that they both need a little more "experience" before they will be ready to settle down. In search of adventure, Matt departs for parts unknown. In search of romance, Luisa flirts in the moonlight with El Gallo.
Is this the end for Luisa and Matt? Or will separation make their hearts grow fonder?
"This play is told so simply," explains Haskell Fitz-Simons, "using a small platform stage and a number of creative (but hardly 'spectacular' props). That is part of its joy and its genius.
"When we originally planned this production," he explains, "it was to be done in RLT's lovely and intimate Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre. Now, due to the gracious generosity of Progress Energy, we have been given a grant to take the production to the beautiful (but slightly less intimate) Fletcher Opera House. (The idea being to increase our profile in the ever growing, dynamic population of the Triangle Area). The production will shine in The Fletcher Opera House. Our problem is to create a semblance of the intimacy of a smaller house."
That is a challenge that Fitz-Simons will share with choreographer Nancy Rich, musical director SuAnn A. Strickland, set designer and lighting designer Rick Young, and costume designer Vicki Olson.
"The set consists of a simple platform on a raked disc," Fitz-Simons says. "Up-stage there is a framework created by a number of semi-transparent panels, behind which may be seen the Baby Grand piano [played SuAnn Strickland] and the Concert Harp [played Anita Burroughs-Price], which provide the musical accompaniment."
He says, "The lighting is lush and atmospheric, using a fair amount of color and depth to give definition to the soft, romantic moon-lit scenes, in contrast to the more harshly lit 'realism' of the daylight scenes."
Fitz-Simons adds, "The costumes will have a 'commedia' flair, while being firmly rooted in the America of the 1950s....
"Above and beyond the show's incredibly lovely score," Haskell Fitz-Simons says, "I think I have always been drawn to the simple Theatricality of the play. [It is] a rather simple story, told powerfully and with grace and power with the simplest of means. [It has a] small cast, minimal set, some effective lights and props — and a masterpiece of a script and score! This play has a way of reaching out and touching the hearts of its audiences that transcends the passage of time."
Raleigh Little Theatre presents The Fantasticks Saturday, March 15, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 16, at 3 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, March 20-21, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 22, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 23, at 3 p.m. in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $13-$25. (NOTE: RLT will provide audio description at 8 p.m. March 20 and sign-language interpretation at 3 p.m. March 22.) 919/821-3111. http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/fantast.htm [inactive 7/1/03] or http://www.thefantasticks.com/ [inctive 6/04].