Broadway revived

One of the unfortunate things about naming your musical something like “The Fantasticks,” is that if it turns out to be well written, produced and performed, the critics are forced to go deep into their thesauruses in order to avoid using the word fantastic. The thing is, most critics are lazy individuals (why else be a critic?) who’d rather not do more work than necessary. Nevertheless, I was so charmed by the Portland Center Stage production of “The Fantasticks” that I am willing to open up the dusty Webster’s in order to do it justice.

I feel quite fortunate that I had never seen “The Fantasticks” before stepping into the lively Newmark Theatre last Friday. It seemed strange to me that when I would mention going to see “The Fantasticks,” a musical which puts a hefty spin on “Romeo and Juliet,” most people would chuckle and say, “Well, you know. It’s a ’60s musical.” I didn’t know what to imagine. Would there be naked actors painting flowers on one another’s nipples? Would there be gratuitous references to free love and illicit drugs? Honestly, I was about ready to accept anything.

The premise of “The Fantasticks” is that two fathers have created a faux feud with one another in order to bring their children together. The children, tricked by the ruse, pursue their passion until the fathers’ trick is revealed, at which point their love is immediately put in question.

I must say, Chris Coleman is a brave man to attempt to revive a classic musical so entrenched in its time and image. It’s not an easy task to manipulate a production with so much cultural baggage. It seems he went about it the only way possible – tear it down, deconstruct it and build it anew. It is a strategy that has worked beautifully.

When seated in the theater before the start of the production, you have the odd sensation that you have arrived well after the production has finished. Stagehands walk back and forth across the stage, moving set pieces, adjusting lights, moving boxes and generally doing the things stagehands do. The houselights remain on as they go about their business, largely ignored because most in the audience are, of course, expecting the well-polished, well-mannered, shining-faced musical theater actors they are used to. It is not until Adrian Bailey begins singing the opening lines of “Try to Remember” that we really get an idea of what’s happening. The house lights dim and we suddenly understand the show has begun and we are very much a part of it. This ingenious technique allows the audience to be drawn in slowly to the magic while feeling completely connected to everything that happens.

In fact, much of this production of “The Fantasticks” is about magic, but not in the way we are accustomed to. Chris Coleman has given us a peek behind the magician’s cape, but in doing so he has created more mystery. It’s a clever manipulation of the artifice that seems to be a theme in the musical. As Hucklebee and Bellomy, the fathers of the two young lovers who are the subject of the production, talk about how well they’ve faked the feud that has brought their progeny together, it makes sense that the dialogue should take place on a bare stage with a ladder representing the wall they have built between them for effect.

There are many examples of brilliant staging throughout this production and there are some breathtaking moments. However, all would be for naught if the cast were not sublime. Luckily, they are. The energy of the cast is simply amazing. It’s almost as if they were playing on a Broadway stage for an audience twice the size. As confident in their movements and acting as they were with their voices, they kept the production hopping, even when it seemed in danger of faltering in the second act.

Additional praise must be given to Brian Thompson, whose portrayal of the droll and dusty Henry, an actor for hire who helps hatch the plot guaranteed to get the young lovers wed, was one of the highlights. Rebecca Stanley’s portrayal of Luisa must also be noted. Her tomboy rendition of the flighty-minded heroine gave a weight to lines that may have been wasted if delivered in any other manner. Not to mention, she is an amazing singer. Unfortunately, at times her passion and volume would drown out the slighter, sweeter voice of Raymond J. Lee, playing Matt, Luisa’s love interest.

The only complaint in regards to this otherwise – let’s see – capricious production (whew) would be that the small trio providing the music in the form of piano, bass and guitar was a bit too quiet, their sound almost lost in the theater.

In the final analysis, this plucky production shows the malleability of this ’60s musical, which has continued to be performed as time changes around it, just as the set shifts and changes around the actors. Even the songs seem timeless. This fresh new take on “The Fantasticks” lives up to its name.

“The Fantasticks” is playing at the Newmark Theatre through Feb. 5. Tickets are $20.50-64.25 and are available through PCPA or Ticketmaster. For more information call 503-248-4355.