You wonder how these things begin. Fifty years ago this spring, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks, a droll spoof of Romeo and Juliet, began its life as a modest musical trying to survive the stigma of decidedly mixed reviews. That original staging (which would run for 42 years and more than 17,000 performances at the same off-Broadway playhouse) drew on elements of classical Greek theater, Italian commedia dell'arte, English masque and Japanese Noh. Yet despite all these influences, the hallmark of this lyric masquerade — and the aspect viewers found so endearing — was its utter simplicity.
A sly paean to innocence, The Fantasticks transports us to special places — into a forest glen "where vines entwine like lovers" — but also into the recesses of a darkened theater where viewers of all ages can "celebrate sensation" and "hide away in shadows from the tyranny of time." Yet through the decades time has stripped The Fantasticks of some of its more fantastical qualities. Its stock characters have become more realistic and less stylized. The show will tolerate these changes, so long as the evening's imprimatur remains simplicity.
The current production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which was staged by Victoria Bussert, is straining at the bit to be busy and clever. Bussert doesn't trust the world's longest-running musical to engage an audience; she thinks she can improve it. So a scenic design that 50 years ago comprised one platform and four poles now has several platforms and four ladders. The "new and improved" prop list now includes an electric lawn trimmer, a Star Wars laser sword, cell phones, a bicycle built for two.
Most of these additions, while pointless, are merely cosmetic. Much more significant is Bussert's nearly fatal decision to elevate the Mute from a shadow figure into a starring role. As originally conceived, the Mute (a very practical sidekick to the Narrator) is metaphor; he personifies the process of theater. Initially cast with a man, the Mute is clearly malleable. I've seen the role played by women; I once saw the role split between two women. But until now I have never seen the Mute portrayed as G.I. Jane. It's good the Mute can't talk, or she'd surely have us all doing pushups. You might even think that this Fantasticks is set at boot camp. (Those ladders are there to be climbed.) This more aggressive Mute has been reconceived to mug, to upstage, to call attention to herself, all at the expense of the principals. Just one example: The haunting eloquence of El Gallo's soliloquy, "You wonder how these things begin," is muted when the Mute is flitting about like a fan dancer.
But all is not lost. In addition to Peter E. Sargent's sensitive lighting (Sargent seems to be the only person on the creative team who appreciates the show's classical roots), what work best here are some of the individual performances. Cory Michael Smith is charmingly persuasive as Matt, the impetuous young romantic. Smith leavens his sincerity with an appealing humor. As the Narrator who doubles as the dashing bandit El Gallo, Brian Sutherland is a little more conversational and less caressing of the words than I might hope for, but he possesses a wise, knowing demeanor. Unfortunately, director Bussert tries to keep Sutherland and Smith as far from each other as possible during the blistering "I Can See It." Hence we are denied the excitement of hearing two strong male voices riding together across the stage.
Joneal Joplin seems to think that because he is an old actor, he is qualified to play the Old Actor. Perhaps because Joplin has never had to worry about where his next job was coming from (it comes from the Rep), he completely misses the beguiling pathos of the Old Actor's desperate need to work. But the astonishing elasticity of The Fantasticks allows it to withstand just about anything. The well-sung songs remain sweet and tender, and the theme — that the roots of love must be deeply planted, with lots of space between them — resonates with viewers of all ages. On opening night when, at evening's end, wizened lovers Matt and Luisa (Stella Heath, piquant and lovely) sang the touching duet "They Were You," the breathless audience was afraid to even applaud, for fear of intruding on the hushed spell. Sometimes, despite even the best intentions, simplicity will out.