Written in 1960, The Fantasticks has the distinction of being the longest-running musical in history. That was 1960 to 2002 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. And New Yorkers apparently missed it: Another production started up again in 2006 and is still running at the off-Broadway Snapple Theater Center. This summer, Waitsfield’s Skinner Barn offers The Fantasticks as its main production, having staged it last month at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, as well.
Why The Fantasticks is so popular, though, is somewhat mystifying. Granted, it does have some good tunes — “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” in particular were destined to be classics. With music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones), The Fantasticks soundtrack is likely a beloved member of many a fan’s record collection. But the show, based upon a French Romeo and Juliet spoof by Edmund Rostand, has a paper-thin plot with some rather bizarre — even disturbing — ways of delivering its allegorical message.
The story is essentially this: Boy (Matt, 19) and Girl (Luisa, 16) are desperately in love; desperate because they are adolescents and also because their fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, respectively, keep them physically apart with a tall wall between their neighboring properties. We soon learn this is a ruse: The fathers, longtime pals, have pretended to be enemies on the reverse-psychology theory that forbidding their offspring to see each other will make them want to do just that. You know how kids are. What the dads really want is for Matt and Luisa to marry each other. (By the way, there is no explanation for the absence of mothers.)
The inkling that Hucklebee and Bellomy are inept manipulators is confirmed when they devise a ridiculous scheme for traveling actors — a black-clad scoundrel named El Gallo and two other odd characters, Henry and Mortimer — to pretend to abduct Luisa. They also pretend to let Matt heroically foil this effort. The idea is this will allow the fathers to make up, tear down the wall and let the children unite. This joy wraps with the number “Happy Ending,” but it is only the end of Act One. What next?
Unfortunately, in Act Two, the lovers have discovered the deception, stars fall from everyone’s eyes and they begin to find fault with each other. Matt takes off to see the world, which is not at all nice to him, while Luisa remains at home mooning about. Both supposedly get a little disillusioned, a little wiser, and … well, since The Fantasticks has been running for decades, it is probably not news to anyone that the couple comes to appreciate what they have at home, and finally reunite for a truly happier ending.
Whether the story feels dated or timeless depends on the viewer, but either way, the crew at Skinner Barn give it their all. Director and theater owner Peter Boynton cast his players well, particularly Alexa Cepeda as Luisa and Matt Trollinger as Matt. A sophomore at Ithaca College, Cepeda is winsome and charming, convincing as a lovestruck, drama-queen teen. She easily nailed her solos with a crystalline soprano, though she was a bit overpowered in ensemble songs. Trollinger, a 2010 graduate of the University of Vermont and in his fifth show for Skinner Barn, has a strong tenor and emotional depth. Both are naturals onstage.
Joe Garofalo as Hucklebee and Karl Klein as Bellomy made a comical combo as faux-foes and best buds, especially when shuffling through dance routines. Jim Hogue brought addled roguishness to his role as the eccentric “Old Actor” Henry, while Charlie Cerutti as Mortimer was hilariously melodramatic. All are vets of the Skinner stage. Liza Hill, a senior at Harwood Union, made her professional theater debut as the Mute — essentially a human prop and gofer on the set. Hill brought assurance and grace even to a nonspeaking role.
As the play’s narrator, Boynton struck a balance between avuncular storyteller and a one-man Greek chorus. But as the dashing El Gallo, he simply had fun, particularly in the abduction scene; think rolling eyes, grimaces and swashbuckling gestures (yes, there were swords). Boynton is tall, dark and handsome and has a warm, strong singing voice, honed by three decades on and off Broadway and in film and television. He is a riveting performer even when he’s silly; yet despite his professional cred, Boynton is a team player.
Jono Mainelli returned to Skinner once again as music director and pianist; his rollicking, spot-on accompaniment, along with Rebecca Kauffman on harp, energized the production throughout. Finally, Boynton deserves kudos again for pulling off an extremely spare but workable set. The stage was a low platform with a pipe frame that allowed backdrops and other props to be hung from it. The actors utilized this as well as the floorspace in front, bringing the action close to the audience. The real coup, though, was a nondescript trunk off to the side, from which Henry and Mortimer clambered for their entrance. It was, in a word, fantastick.
"The Fantasticks," Wednesday through Sunday, August 7-11 and 14-18, 8 p.m., Skinner Barn, Waitsfield. $20. Info, 496-4422. theskinnerbarn.com