Carl Au, Luke Brady, David Burt, Hadley Fraser, Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge, Clive Rowe, Lorna Want
The Fantasticks, the musical written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, has just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in New York.
This would be impressive for any show, but the achievement here is all the greater in that surely never before has a piece quite so fundamentally flawed enjoyed quite such longetivity.
The Fantasticks is a typical coming-of-age tale with the added bonus that all of the characters are frankly, and unapologetically, bonkers.
Two yodelling fathers pretend to feud to ensure that their respective children, Matt and Luisa, fall in love as an act of defiance against them. When, however, a planned abduction involving a Zorro-like figure and two thespians goes wrong, Matt ends up touring the world in a month, being drugged, cheated and beaten the whole way, before the lovers are finally reunited. If this resum of the plot is already starting to see your jaw drop in disbelief, the show itself is unlikely to be raising it again.
Everything about The Fantasticks is unbelievably cheesy. It is performed on a minimalist set, with thespians rising out of boxes and self-conscious jokes about the fact there is an audience watching being cracked every few minutes. All this might work if it had greater underlying substance, but with a series of uninspired tunes, and lyrics such as You are Polaris / I am / You are, there is none to speak of. True, realism isnt an aim of the show and there are a multitude of theatrical references (the lovers meet across a wall as in A Midsummer Nights Dream), but none of this can stop the piece from coming across as trite, and frequently monotonous, nonsense.
Unsurprisingly, the cast struggle with the material, and none more so than Lorna Want and Luke Brady as the young lovers. They have the weakest songs to begin with and, try as they might, they cannot hide the fact that they dont believe in what they are being forced to perform. I cant blame them for having some taste.
Clive Rowe and David Burt fare better as the two eccentric fathers and throw themselves sufficiently into several comic numbers to raise these to the level of mildly entertaining. Hadley Fraser and Paul Hunter are also reasonably strong as the narrator, El Gallo, and the actor, Mortimer, respectively.
The only performer who comes out looking especially good, however, is the old hand Edward Petherbridge who plays the thespian, Henry. Summoned from a trunk to aid with the abduction, he delivers some priceless Shakespearean lines which elicit belly laughs because the comic delivery is so skilful. It is a shame, however, that his main scene, and anything good at all in the show, come before the interval, leaving the second half to drag on mercilessly.
All this begs the question, how could The Fantasticks have ever become so popular in America? It has probably benefitted from The Mousetrap syndrome by attracting a cult following and watching people return time and time again. If this is so, it is lucky that it came out in 1960 when the world was far more innocent, as I doubt it would have received the required initial support even just a few years later. I also imagine that the show might come off better when performed on a different scale. With more money thrown at it, the musical numbers could become extravaganzas so big that they defied the underlying weakness of the songs. Conversely, in smaller venues than the Duchess Theatre (which I assume its off-Broadway homes are) it could play better on its intimacy and charm.
In any case, I doubt that the musical will be winning the hearts of West End audiences in quite the same way. “I find it unbelievable” said the person sitting next to me, and it wasnt meant as a compliment.