Antares mulls over the enduring and endearing appeal of The Fantasticks
The death of a king is a pretty tough act to follow. Music Theatre’s restaging of THE FANTASTICKS was set to open on November 22nd (2001). But it was canceled in respect of the royal passing. It was a somewhat subdued turnout the next evening, but cast and orchestra pulled through like troopers. Indeed, the chemistry was pretty much right.
Why THE FANTASTICKS twice in Kuala Lumpur within months? What makes it the world’s longest running musical (more than 18,000 performances since May 1960)?
Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) got their inspiration from Les Romanesques by Edmond Rostand (of Cyrano de Bergerac fame). The title was rendered in English as The Fantasticks and the name stuck.
It’s a deceptively simple allegory of life and love: a boy and a girl, Matt and Luisa (or Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Candide and Cunegund, Adam and Eve); their manipulative fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, both avid gardeners; a Wall (portrayed by a whitefaced mute, doubling as prop-mover); a pair of buffoons in the tradition of commedia dell’arte or Laurel and Hardy; and a mysterious narrator/chorus/bandit named El Gallo (which means, in Spanish, The Cock).
This eclectic and magical mix of theatrical idioms forms a melodious and harmonious whole that weaves a wise and whimsical web of metaphors. Apart from Try To Remember, Schmidt’s tunes aren’t particularly memorable, but they’re catchy and vivacious – and Jones has a gift with rhymes (dependable and befriendable, children and bewilderin’). The storyline blends light and dark, gladness and sorrow, poetic irony and slapstick comedy, to highly agreeable effect.
As a callow youth in 1968 I caught THE FANTASTICKS in New York. It was truly… well, fantastick! In the 1970s I saw it again in Kuala Lumpur but the production left much to be desired. Now along comes Philip Chai, the Selangor Phil’s veteran wunderkind and co-founder of Music Theatre – just the right person to direct a credible version of this modest classic using local talent. His Hucklebee was smoothly accomplished and enacted with grand gusto; a perfect ploy for Liau Siau Suan’s lovable and believable Bellomy.
Alex Koh’s rich singing voice made his stage debut as Matt a marvelous success, although he could do with some loosening up as an actor. Luisa was perkily played by the pretty and petite Maria Gomez, a professional songstress, also making her debut in local theater. She did extremely well, I thought, for someone who is unaccustomed to singing without a mike (she sometimes had to struggle against the orchestra).
The same problem with recording artiste Sharizan Borhan, whose El Gallo might have been much more masterful had his voice been more audible, his moustache less detachable, and his shirt less shiny; but on the whole his performance was laudable, even if his youth proved a slight handicap in this demanding rôle.
Choreographer and champion figure-skater Peter Choo was impeccable as the multi-purpose Mute, elegant agent of Fate and efficient shifter of scenes and props. His remarkable focus physically anchored the action even as it helped raise the drama to the required heights of imaginative fancy. It was a sheer pleasure to watch him at work.
As Mortimer and Henry (the Ancient Actor), Lim Soon Heng and Sham Sunder Binwani very nearly stole the show. Both turned in priceless performances and brought the house down with their vaudeville antics. Their clever use of vernacular accents added an entirely new dimension to the boisterous hilarity of their scenes.
One particular sequence did not fully satisfy: when Matt turns his back on “virtue” to explore the sensual possibilities of “vice” – only to find demons flailing at his mortal flesh – his pain comes across as no more than a Punch & Judy act. Somehow the effect wasn’t quite right. The darkness held no terror, there was no edge to Matt’s agony, no sense of diabolical dread.
Nonetheless I gratefully surrendered to the quintessentially theatrical magic of THE FANTASTICKS as resurrected yet once more by the energetic and talented Philip Chai. A special round of applause to the orchestra consisting of Tay Tai Wee on piano, Joseph Arnesto on double bass, and Karen Ng on percussion. The original score called for a harp, but it wasn’t badly missed – though that certainly would have been a heavenly treat.
25 November 2001