“The Fantasticks” seems like just a syrupy treat—until it cuts your heart in two like a fine-honed sword. It’s an ambush, a lilting, mid-century psyche-out, and this twist of surprise makes “The Fantasticks” the must-see of the new theater season at The Pasadena Playhouse, now through October 2.
At first blush, it seems like the most formulaic bit of theater ever staged: boy meets girl, boy sings song, parents disapprove—and from there, just connect the dots, like you’ve done a jillion times before. Add one of the most genuinely melodic show tunes of all time, “Try to Remember”, made for crooning, swooning, mooning and spooning; the toothache-sweet ballad has been recorded by Andy Williams, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Dean Martin and der Bingle, to name the merest few. Seems like classic canned corn. Except that it’s not.
Ashley Park and Conor Guzman play the mercurial young lovers Luisa and Matt. At yesterday’s press preview held at The Pasadena Playhouse, Park said, “The way the romance is portrayed in the play is so different from the way my generation dates. Today, it’s so fast, just swipe. So it’s doubtful that Luisa and Matt would even have found each other. Even if they had, I don’t think they would have been patient enough to start over again on that long journey after they hurt each other. Online, there is always someone new to meet.”
Conor Guzman, a Pasadena native, said, “Millennials have this image of being ironic and snarky. But we bring utter sincerity to the romance between Ashley’s character and mine. We are directed to not play it tongue-in-cheek. Working this way is intensely vulnerable, and we hope to make the audience feel that vulnerability, too. It gives me butterflies, honestly.”
Show librettist Tom Jones (obviously not the uh-huh, sweaty Welsh one), clad in crisp summer whites and surrounded by his cast, said, “It all starts with a lie. The audience has to be willing to suspend disbelief, regardless of how complex or how deconstructed the staging is, whether it’s live, or on camera. When you have people bursting into song in cornfields, and fleeing the Nazis over mountain-tops, and dancing on fire-escapes, the audience has to buy into the lie, or else, well, it’s not the shared experience of theater. And this is especially true for musical theater. ”
Jones wrote the script and lyrics to “The Fantasticks” with his creative partner, composer Harvey Schmidt for the show which opened May 3, 1960, and played off-Broadway for 17,162 performances before closing on January 13, 2002, making it the longest-running musical in history: almost six decades, with performances in nearly 70 countries. “The Fantasticks” has baggage, and bears traces of previous versions– one of these with a Wild West motif which explains naming the narrator El Gallo, as well as Latin flourishes in some of the score.
Referencing another collaboration with Schmidt, the musical “I Do! I Do”, Jones commented, “We’re thinking about changing the title to ‘I Do! I Do! I Do!’, so it’s about a ménage-a-trois. You have to keep it relevant, you know.”
Relevancy, resistance to authority, and the defiance of social norms are at the heart of this play, which initially seems to exemplify the uber-square Ozzie and Harriet era on which Jones wrote. But listen more closely: Jones chooses words for their rhythm and chroma more than literal usage, which gives his writing a jazzy, poetry-slam cadence that seems at times to echo the voices of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Perhaps pausing to remember himself wearing a hipster coffeehouse beret and a black turtleneck, Jones said, “When it comes to the Beats, I’m more of a Ferlinghetti guy, myself.” The Beat Generation-feel may also be felt in the spare, stripped-down set where a moon painted on a scrim gazes down over what represents, according to Performances magazine, “An old, abandoned, dilapidated theatre in Southern California that has been shuttered since 1969.”
The cast and company are as ethnically diverse as Pasadena itself –the city, like this play, struggles with an undeserved stale white bread rep. Director Seema Sueko (born in Pakistan, raised in Hawaii, by her Pakistani father and Japanese-American mother), says that she “cast for excellence.” The result is a cast dominated by people of color. Sueko added, “This play teaches us how to love, and to actively choose love. When I would ask myself, ‘Why is ‘The Fantasticks’ necessary?”, the importance of love was always the answer I got. Of course, there is the romance, then the painful realization that perfection is an illusion, and that love is worth it, anyway. And I also think what we have here is a larger case for tolerance and acceptance, so badly needed in these polarized times.”
This play is often called a fable, and it’s also a riddle. One of the coded messages is contained in that oh-so-singable showstopper in Act 1, “Try to Remember.” The lyrics allude to September versus spring, often the merry month of May, when young lovers meet in typical romances, in a life which is not overheated but tender, “…slow, / And oh so mellow.” The song later alludes to heat and fire, probably the most common metaphors for what happens when boy meets girl, yet again Jones’ lyric suggests not flammable innocence but poignant experience. These are not the first, frantic sparks of an incendiary young crush. This love is “…an ember about to billow.” It’s a mature coal that has done the slow burn and now is about to blaze again from some deep reserve, probably for the final time. Can’t remember what it felt like? See this production of “The Fantasticks.”
“The Fantasticks” runs through October 2nd at The Pasadena Playhouse – 626-356-7529.