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May 23, 2007

‘The Fantasticks’ deserves to run and run

“The Fantasticks” is the most-seen play of the 20th century. It remains the longest running off-Broadway production of all time, with an uninterrupted run of 17,162 performances from 1960 to 2002. So, is there any reason on Earth to resurrect this time-worn musical icon yet again?The answer: yes. The As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company hits the bulls-eye with an immaculate rendition of this “Romeo and Juliet”-gone-awry classic. Directors Sandy Richens Cohrs and Amanda Davenport wisely chose not to update this chestnut, nor do they attempt to inject new edginess into it. From the first moment Gary Tipton strides onstage as the dashing El Gallo, clad in black leather pants, a red bolero and a black hat with a red feather, you know you’re in for a professionally executed show. El Gallo acts as the omniscient narrator, but interacts with the other players. Tipton is immediately engaging and charismatic (as befits his sly Don Juan-ish character), sings in perfect pitch from first to final curtain, and dances up a storm without showing any sign of breathlessness.Rachel Knight is Luisa, a pleasantly self-absorbed and eccentric young girl who lives in a fantasy world of her own imagination and whimsy. Luisa teeters between the madness of Shakespeare’s Ophelia and the nubile ingénue of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” and Knight gets the mix just right. Josh O’Brien, as her love interest Matt, also sings smoothly and beautifully, gliding around in the space between baritone and tenor without ever straining for the notes. J.T. Taylor and Richard Ray play the girl’s and boy’s fathers (both of whom share an obsessive-compulsive fixation on vegetables), and they shine to the point of nearly upstaging the leads. Their clownish repartee and animated song-and-dance routines (“Plant a Radish” is especially a high point in the libretto) are twice as energetic and spirited as those of their children.El Gallo’s hired henchmen Mortimer (Eddie Dohn) and Henry (Ian Ellis) bring a stoogelike slapstick quality to the proceedings, with an unexpectedly surreal touch. Ellis somehow manages to impart a peculiar dignity to his buffoonish role, which adds needed dimension to the character.Jennifer McClain’s costumes and props provide a light commedia dell’arte touch (Matt’s vest has a harlequin pattern). The music, while not memorable, is pleasant, and clearly influenced Stephen Sondheim with its modern atonality. The MeX Theater may seem a trifle small for such a musical. The set for “The Fantasticks” is so sparse, however, that there’s plenty of room for its colorful cast to frolic far and wide, and they use every inch of the MeX’s space to the fullest. Early in the story, Luisa looks heavenward and exclaims, “Please, God, don’t let me be normal!” If the cast and crew have similar concerns, fear not: This is no normal production of “The Fantasticks.” It deserves to run and run, not so much for comfortingly familiar plot and songs but for the superb quality of the cast and their performances.BY SHERRY DEATRICKsdeatrick@gmail.com