Try to remember a time when The Fantasticks wasn't the most beloved musical in America. Yet 43 years ago last week, when the show sneaked into the off-Broadway Sullivan Street Playhouse, it must have seemed a risky prospect for success. No set to speak of (a treasure chest, a cardboard moon); its only instrumentation piano and harp; a mere sliver of a story that celebrates love so long as you don't love too much.
Today The Fantasticks is a part of the landscape. In addition to that original staging, which ran for 42 years and more than 17,000 performances, there have been more than 15,000 productions throughout America alone. Yet here's a curious paradox: Our favorite musical has become one of the most problematic to produce. Why should that be? Why has the show's fragile soul become so elusive? Has the tyranny of time rendered irrelevant this subtle lacing of sentiment and whimsy? Whatever the cause, over the past decade too many Fantasticks have seemed hollow at the center.
So here's a happy surprise. The version on view at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves is a beguiling delight. This modest community-theater production is far from flawless. But it does so many things right -- and its conviction is so centered -- that the entire evening is buoyant.
As staged by Bob Lauman, this is not your conventional Fantasticks. Normally the show is cast with seven men and one woman. Here the mix is four and four. How is that so? Well, for starters, the two fathers have been transformed into mothers.
Through the years there's been a lot of questionable tampering with The Fantasticks. Last summer, for instance, the Muny version glutted the stage with 41 unnecessary teenagers. And a decade ago, the show's creators wrote a substitute song for a number that was deemed offensive. (To its credit, this Webster Groves mounting performs the original score.) A sex change might sound like a major alteration, yet it does not harm the story's intent at all. On the contrary, it allows the viewer to see the show from a fresh perspective. Primarily the change works because Kimberly Sansone and Laura Kyro both deliver confident, bodacious performances that elicit the proper panache. Why not moms?
Director Lauman throws another curve or two into the proceedings by casting the Mute, traditionally a male role, as a female. Although the Mute usually glides through the evening dispensing props as inconspicuously as possible, it's hard not to pay attention to Amelia Tryon. Her Mute becomes a kind of conscience.
But it's Laura McLaughlin's sylphlike Luisa that strikes the nerve of truth. For too many years now, Luisas have been sopranos first; the required innocence has been incidental. McLaughlin is a lovely singer. But she's also so natural, one senses she might have been plucked from her back yard and dropped onto the stage. She is simply, purely Luisa, the sweet embodiment of a character who for too long has been reduced to a canarylike trill.
In rambunctious contrast, Matt Dailey plays against type as Luisa's ardent suitor, Matt. Usually the boy is portrayed as oh-so-sincere. Not here. This Matt is an impish know-it-all handful, a real teenager. With his Buster Brown bangs, Dailey resembles a young Robert Morse; this kid could grow up to be as brash as J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed. More than anyone else onstage, he succeeds in conveying the duality that makes The Fantasticks unique. As co-creator Tom Jones once explained, the show's goal is "to celebrate romanticism and mock it at the same time. To touch people, and then to make them laugh at the very things that touched them. To put two emotions side by side, as close together as possible, like a chord of music."
This production not only puts its emotions side by side, it juxtaposes its characters. Actresses Tryon and McLaughlin are scheduled to alternate in the roles of Luisa and the Mute. One hopes that the switch will deliver as affectionate an evening as the one on opening night, when a venerable old theater in Webster Groves captured the wholesome, pristine, think-small ambience of the original Fantasticks more than 40 years ago. To see this evocative production was akin to discovering that a long-lost friend is alive and well.