DRAPER — This was my first time seeing The Fantasticks, and it only took me a few minutes to understand why it’s such a staple of community theater. Tom Jones’s script is fast-paced and quick-witted; Harvey Schmidt’s music includes lovely ballads and catchy jaunts; and the story, based on Les Romanesques by Edmond Rostand, is all nostalgia and whimsy.
As the play opens, actors rush about assembling the minimalistic set under the direction of The Mute (Russell Warne). Once they’ve set the stage, El Gallo (Frans Lembrechtsen) introduces the rest of the characters. The audience meets Matt (Brice Hessing) and Luisa (Maddiey Howell), both of whom are young, naïve, and ripe for falling in puppy love. They’re next door neighbors, and their parents (Amber Brill and Brett Howell) fake a feud between families in order to reverse psychology their children into a forbidden love. They even hire a cast of actors, (Jordan Hyde, Lambrechsten, and Matt Maxwell) to stage an abduction of Luisa so that Matt can feel heroic and the adversity will draw the couple together. Of course the lovers and their parents are eventually forced to endure the consequences when the plot is found out, and it is up to the second act to resolve the conflict resulting from the deception in the first.
The production at Draper Historic Theater was all together adequate. Both the set (created by Matt Maxwell, Kate Nielsen, and Craig Haycock) and orchestra (music director J.D. McKell) were sparse, as is traditional for this show. I was impressed with how well the two-piece accompaniment complimented the score: the piano’s (Linda Brill) airy gaiety carried the melodies which were grounded and driven by string bass. The set consisted of no more than a central platform, a large trunk out of which all kinds of things could be drawn, à la stylings of an Acme bag, and a backing banner with the show’s title scrawled across it. The costumes (designed by Deborah Wouden) were fairly basic and occasionally felt a little out of place (here I’m thinking primarily of the purple suit that made El Gallo look more like a Dick Tracy villain than a Spaniard), but they mainly did their jobs. This allowed for the actors to play with the audience’s imagination, carrying the spectators to settings across the globe with a wave of the hand. This also meant the weight of engaging the audience visually fell almost entirely on the cast.
Each of the actors in this play was vocally talented and dramatically competent, but—and this was sort of an important “but” for a show that relies heavily on tightly executed physical comedy and excellent comic timing—none of them seemed at home in a musical comedy. Instead of the flamboyant hams The Fantasticks requires, this show was cast with actors who didn’t appear completely comfortable in their parts. This was director Tiffany Roberts’s first foray in theater, and according to her bio she simply offered to volunteer and was tasked with directing. Coming in cold turkey like that, she deserves a round of applause simply for getting this production to opening night. The cast knew where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to be doing: no one ever stumbled on lines or broke character. Each actor’s voice fit the part and, although the vocal harmonies weren’t always well balanced in terms of volume, each song was pleasant. Everyone seemed basically competent. But even as the play kept moving, jokes often came out in a rush of dialogue without comic development, and the musical numbers and choreography lacked the kind of flourish that would make them delightful instead of merely passable. While I’d never seen this play before, I got the impression that the script asks a lot of a director in order to guide the physical humor and help the cast milk all the charm out of the fast-paced verbal exchanges. Every musical number and joke felt under-executed. With attention, I could pick the jokes out of the stream of dialogue, but they didn’t always draw a laugh.
Overall, I’d say the show was what you might expect from a talented amateur cast and crew who took on a challenging script. If you know someone in the cast or have a passion for community theater, this is the show for you. But if you’re hoping to take in all the splendor of the world’s longest running off-Broadway musical, you’ll probably find this production a bit underwhelming.