In the classic Broadway musical “The Fantasticks,” when the young romantic Matt calls over the wall to the girl of his dreams, Luisa, he addresses her with the names of legendary beauties and heroines of literature: Helena, Cassandra, Cleopatra, Beatrice and Guinevere. But the first name he chooses for his breathless and giddy sweetheart is Juliet.
Perhaps that’s because the 1960 musical, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, is actually based on a French burlesque by Edmond Rostand, which parodies Shakespeare’s most famous tragic romance, “Romeo and Juliet.” So instead of forbidden love between young, impetuous teens from rival families, “The Fantasticks” tells the story of two foolish fathers who try to unite their children by pretending to feud, and building a wall to keep them apart. Since children do, in fact, often gravitate towards the things that their parents try to keep off-limits, the ruse works for awhile. But the musical makes clear in the second act that life and love do not actually play out like romantic fairy tales. Believing in books full of poetry rather than real experience comes at a cost.
There are several breathtaking moments in In Tandem Theatre’s production of this enormously popular musical, and most of them revolve around Andrew Varela, who plays the cynical narrator and sometimes villain El Gallo. Not only does Varela have a powerful, warm baritone that immediately welcomes the audience with the lyrical “Try to Remember,” but as the link to the viewers, he is also the most three-dimensional and fully realized member of the cast. In his melancholy-tinged monologues, heartfelt songs, and rueful scenes with Luisa (Susan Wiedmeyer), he makes emotional connections that are absent from the rest of the play. At the same time, his flamenco style, “It Depends on What You Pay” number is the comic highlight of the show. With the suave confidence of Antonio Banderas, he struts around the small stage in a flowing back trench coat, describing the ways he can pretend to attack Luisa so that her fledgling love Matt can step in and save the day — a plan both of their fathers believe will cement their match. (And yes, for those of you who have loved “The Fantasticks” since its debut more than five decades ago, this is the “rape” song, that has wisely been rewritten with “abduction” in its place.)
The rest of the show presents characters who are firmly rooted in archetypes and played like cartoons — figures in a broad morality tale.
As the mostly benign, scheming fathers, both Matt Daniels’s Hucklebee and Chris Flieller’s Bellomy are little more than foolish gardeners; one who believes in pruning and the other who believes in watering to make their vegetables grow. They channel a mismatched comedy duo in the vaudeville-inspired “Plant a Radish,” bemoaning the fact that children are not as easy to raise as vegetables. The song and dance routine even comes with a little soft shoe and makeshift canes and top hats. (Clever choreography by Adam Estes.) Their voices meshing pleasantly, the two actors bring the number home, but as characters the pair remains flat.
When enlisting accomplices for the abduction, El Gallo summons a dusty old thespian from a weathered trunk, namely Robert Spencer, who inhabits the role of the washed up Shakespearean actor with delightful pathos. Spencer imbues the old performer with a longing for the limelight, and a quivering lip at the thought of being forgotten, or left in the shadows. He also provides some jaunty comic relief in bits with the full cast. Unfortunately, the pace of the scenes featuring the actor and his sidekick (Austin Dorman) almost grind the show to a halt.
As for the lovers, director Jane Flieller made the smart choice to cast two performers with excellent voices. Susan Wiedmeyer’s soprano soars gracefully in her role as the clueless, self-involved Luisa. Her gentle, pure voice was practically made for the role, and her duet, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” performed with her would-be beau Matt, the bright eyed Keegan Siebken, is another high point in the show. Siebken combines an all-American likability with the naiveté of a small town hero, and backs up his role with a similarly gorgeous voice that is full and self-assured. His duet “I Can See It,” with Varela is also lush and transporting.
But the thing that makes “Romeo and Juliet” compelling, — or Emily and George from “Our Town,” currently playing down the block — is the depth of their emotion. It may be irrational and disproportionate; it may be fueled by hormones and little else, but it is recognizable and real. That is what is missing in this production of “The Fantasticks.” Maybe that’s by design. Maybe we’re supposed to see the teenage lovers as spoiled, petulant children. But if we’re not invested in their relationship at all during the first act, their reconciliation near the end doesn’t hold much interest either.
The “concept” for this “Fantasticks” is that the actors are a traveling troupe, performing in Anytown, USA. That makes the mute character as stagehand a great choice. Dressed in black, earpiece firmly attached and stopwatch around her neck just like any top notch stage manager, Mary C. McLellan was always standing by with a prop, percussion instrument, or a handful of raindrops. With a snap of her fingers the lights go to black, just as they are supposed to. Then on to the next town.
When: through May 20
Where: In Tandem Theatre Company
Who: Directed by Managing Director Jane Flieller, featuring Andrew Varela, Susan Wiedmeyer, Robert Spencer, Keegan Siebken, and others.
How much? $25-$30
Why go? It’s a good version of a classic, well sung and poignant.
More info: nextact.org
An edited version of this review appears on OnMilwaukee.com.