Hooray for Hollywood

Nobody who has seen the off-Broadway version of The Fantasticks at New York City's Sullivan Street Playhouse will recognize the set of the appealing new production at the Hollywood Playhouse. (That's a lot of us, given the 15,000 or so performances the show has racked up since it opened on May 3, 1960.) A boy, a girl, and a wall are the basic elements, as they have been for nearly 40 years. The show is still the longest-running musical on or off the Great White Way. But in place of the bare stage and black-box aesthetics of the off-Broadway venue, director and newly installed Playhouse artistic director Andy Rogow has substituted cotton-candy pastels and whimsical costumes that suggest, well, that the new incarnation of this venerable South Florida institution, which is using Equity actors for the first time, may be capable of turning tradition on its head in all the right ways.

Purists may be alarmed to discover that the musical now looks like it could double as the set of a children's TV show, with movable white ramps on the stage, a bright-white soccer net in place of the famous brick wall separating the lovers, and an entire palette of cheerful light filters that change the performance area from pink to blue to midday yellow. You weren't expecting Technicolor? Don't worry, the show is still the same charming, chamber-size musical it always was, give or take a few musty elements. Its wistful parts are still wistful. Its score is still lovely. And its signature song, "Try to Remember," is still the same annoying tune that you can't get out of your head, no matter how desperately you try.

You remember the story, don't you? The creators, Tom Jones and Harvey L. Schmidt, who constructed the work that became The Fantasticks while they were still in college, credit Edmond Rostand's 1894 play Les Romanesques as their inspiration. The original version -- its unwieldy title was Joy Comes to Dead Horse -- was set in a Texas border town. When West Side Story arrived on Broadway, the creators scratched their elaborate Texan boy/Mexican girl concept, throwing out everything but the outline of a romance. Add one strong cast with great voices, as is the case at the Playhouse, and the result is basically a generic musical that has survived time, changing political winds, and the onslaught of Broadway shows involving people in Disney disguises and cat costumes.

Indeed, apart from the scenery there are no real surprises in the new production. Its consistency has more to do with the show itself than the wide-ranging talents of the Playhouse actors. To contemporary audiences, the story about a girl, a boy, and their feuding fathers will seem more like a melange of Romeo and Juliet and, oh, Pinocchio, and the work of counterculture mystic Carlos Castaneda. What begins as a tale of two young lovers who can talk to each other only through the wall separating their back yards turns darker once the couple, finally joined, finds out that love isn't as easy to sustain as they first believed.

Act Two contains an extended episode in which the boy, no longer content to be with the girl next door, goes off into the world, Pinocchio-style, and meets up with theater's answer to Pinocchio's nefarious fox and the cat, who lead him astray. The girl, on the other hand, gets her own dose of worldly knowledge, thanks to a shamanlike character who guides her through an unpleasant hallucination. (An even more daring production might have switched the sex roles in these episodes. Girls don't sit at home any more, right?)

The young couple, Luisa (Heather Jane Rolff) and Matt (German Brewster), could live in any suburb, not just the one depicted onstage in Hollywood, in which Luisa's father sports red suspenders and a Vandyke beard and Matt's father wears lime-green overalls. Like other Fantasticks fathers, these two pretend to be sworn enemies, when in fact they are secretly hoping their children will fall in love. The fathers are the ones who built the wall between their yards. (Although there are no mothers in The Fantasticks, I thought that David K. Sherman's inventive set design with its netting offers at least an unconscious nod to suburban soccer moms.)

Whatever the locale of the play, however, the universe of The Fantasticks is also home to a handful of strange characters who nearly defy categorization. There's the Mute (Meridith Mursuli), just one of the holdovers from theater of the early Sixties, before it was legitimate to hate mimes. She moves scenery and makes faces and, during the second act, when both families decide they might actually like a wall between them, she knits a new net. Also hanging around the neighborhood is a guy named El Gallo (the Rooster), who -- no matter how many Fantasticks traditions are discarded -- is always dressed in a shirt with disarming ruffles. In this respect and others, Louis Silvers does not disappoint. (In the original production El Gallo was played by Jerry Orbach, now the elder detective on NBC's Law & Order.) His role is a mix of narrator, villain, and deus ex machina.

The two dads get all the best songs, which include "Plant a Radish," in which they compare child-rearing to gardening. "They're dependable," sing the affable Jack Livesey (as Hucklebee, Matt's dad) and Daniel Steinlauf (Bellomy, Luisa's dad) in this ode to vegetables. "They're be-friendable." Two other characters, Mortimer and Henry, don't get any songs all to themselves. Who are Mortimer and Henry? Henry (Michael Marks) is an unemployed actor who happens to be hanging around the neighborhood. Mortimer is also a thespian, of sorts. He (actually a she in this production, played by the inventive Debbie Campbell) specializes in hilariously attenuated death scenes. Their purpose is to help create mischief as needed.

Mortimer, however, may be a good place to start a discussion of what's distasteful about The Fantasticks, because the several ways the show has aged badly come into focus when she appears, dressed in a Native American getup that's used for comic relief. By choosing the show for its inaugural performance, the new management of the Playhouse is trying to bridge the widening gap between the older audience that's made the Playhouse the oldest theater in South Florida and the younger audience it needs to cultivate to survive. That makes sense. Older audiences know and love the show; younger theatergoers may be seduced by its simplicity, not to mention the voices of leads Rolff and Brewster.

What's less appealing and difficult to explain to the young girls in the audience is the presence of the central kidnapping scene, accompanied by a song called "Rape Ballet." As explained by the lovers' fathers, who pay the extraneous characters to stage the girl's kidnapping so the boy can rescue her, the word "rape" isn't used here to mean sexual assault; it's used in the archaic meaning of abduction, and a harmless one in this case. Still, it's a bit unsettling to hear seemingly appealing characters sing about the different kinds of "rape," including "one with Indians." To contemporary audiences, the word, rightly, signals an act of violence, not something to be made light of.

Political correctness aside, the song "Rape Ballet" dates the show far more than any trend that's come and gone in the theater since 1960. Everything else is timeless.

The Fantasticks.
Book and lyrics by Tom Jones. Music by Harvey L. Schmidt. Directed by Andy Rogow. Musical direction by David Williams. With Louis Silvers, Heather Jane Rolff, German Brewster, Debbie Campbell, Michael Marks, Jack Livesey, Daniel Steinlauf, Meridith Mursuli. Through October 25. Hollywood Playhouse, Washington Ave, Hollywood; 954-922-0404.

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