Musical blends love’s joys, sorrows
‘The Fantasticks’’ is a timeless show that’s ideal for the “beautiful little vintage playhouse’’ where the Fiddlehead Theatre Company will perform it this month, according to the company’s artistic director, Meg Fofonoff.
A nostalgic celebration of love and youth, with the warts, bitterness, and heartbreaking complexities included, “The Fantasticks’’ is “full of humor and comedy and swashbuckling,’’ Fofonoff said last week. “It’s full of life’s realities and disappointments’’ as well, she said of the musical, which opened off-Broadway in 1960, and ran for 42 years.
An intimate work, with a cast of seven and an allegorical plot, “The Fantasticks’’ also offers some of musical theater’s best-loved longs, including “Try to Remember’’ and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.’’
These virtues make for a portable production that’s been performed everywhere, from big cities to little theaters and classrooms.
The plot takes off from a scheme by neighboring fathers to pretend they’re feuding and build a wall between their houses to trick their children into falling in love. The fathers then hire El Gallo (the Spanish word means “the rooster’’) to kidnap the girl, Luisa, so that the boy, Matt, can rescue her. The plan works; the two fall in love.
But when the lovers discover the deception, they break up and go off in a huff, each learning about the world through disillusioning encounters provoked by the manipulative El Gallo. At the end they return home and find each other, a little sadder but wiser for their knowledge of life.
“It’s such a great story,’’ said Fofonoff last week, including romance, cynicism, “and an ending that isn’t quite perfect. It’s not the tie-it-up ending of romantic comedies. Everyone’s a little worse for wear.’’
But it’s also a play that inspires audiences to “Try to Remember’’ their own first experiences of love and hope.
The play has connections to the fable of “Pyramus and Thisbe,’’ Voltaire’s “Candide,’’ and to elements in several of Shakespeare’s plays, including the feuding fathers and young lovers of “Romeo and Juliet’’ and the manipulative Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’
El Gallo, who serves as the play’s narrator, “sits back and watches and manipulates,’’ Fofonoff said. Another character, the Mute, recalls Puck, Shakespeare’s mischief-maker.
Gene Dante, who plays El Gallo for the Fiddlehead production, said his character is a combination of “a demigod’’ and a hustler who is the play’s villain. “He’s outgoing and robust. He has a traveling show, a theater wagon from a time that never really existed.’’
A self-described rocker with his band, “Gene Dante and the Future Starlets,’’ Dante draws on himself to find the character. “I go from who I am,’’ he said last week. An actor who combines his stage career with singing in clubs, Dante calls the production’s leads - Michael Dunavant as Matt and Rachel Assaf as Luisa - “true professionals.’’
Matt learns the world is not an easy place, Dunavant said. “He encounters hunger, famine, starvation. He’s beat up, abused. That’s the real world. I totally remember that feeling. He gets his happy ending, but he has to work for it.’’
Dunavant, 23, lives in New York and is a member of Actors Equity. Trained as a classical singer, he’s performed in “Candide’’ and played the role of Frederick, the male innocent in “The Pirates of Penzance,’’ several times, including for Fiddlehead’s recent production.
Fofonoff said the Fiddlehead troupe (“my baby’’) began as a community theater 18 years ago, and has morphed into a professional company.
A lover of plays and literature, she studied English at Boston University and theater at Emerson College, and found her métier in directing and producing - “the whole picture, planning and creating.’’ Part of the appeal of “The Fantasticks’’ for her is its source, “Les Romanesques’’ by Rostand, because she loves French literature and culture.
While “The Fantasticks’’ calls for a simple set, Fiddlehead has added its own creative spin. The play calls for a “wonderful trunk’’ decorated with “little scraps of glitter and fabric’’ out of which two actors emerge.
“My vision is this trunk represents the world of theater,’’ Fofonoff said. She extended that image to adorn the stage’s back wall with a big helping of scraps and remnants of fabric. She also added a music-box stand for Luisa, who becomes a puppet in El Gallo’s hands.
The production choreographs innocence as well. Dressed in white, the lovers shelter under a shared sweater while they sing “Soon It’s Gonna Rain’’ and confetti falls from the sky.
In September, Fiddlehead Theatre will revive a different sort of play, “Ragtime,’’ to be produced at Boston’s Strand Theatre in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts because of the work’s themes of immigration, race, and women’s and gay rights, she said.
The company also has plans for projects in New York City and farther afield. “We’re going mobile,’’ Fofonoff said.
Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.