‘Fantasticks’ packs pretty witty punch

Given a merely cursory glance, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s hit musical “The Fantasticks,” to be produced next week by Cap & Bells, is exactly that: just another hit musical. Charming yet simple, its plot doesn’t bring the audience any new insight: boy meets girl, a little funny business with their fathers, disillusionment, rediscovered love and – presumably – everyone lives happily ever after. The audience is allowed to leave the theatre having had a few delightful laughs and with its heart thoroughly warmed.

Why then was it the longest-running on-Broadway show in the history of American theatre, ending its 42-year run only a little over a month ago? What separates this play from any other simple heartwarming musical? Part of its appeal lies in the fact that despite its age-old plot line, the show itself is actually rather untraditional, especially in its physical simplicity and in its self-consciousness.

In this production, the straightforwardness of this fairy tale plot is accompanied by a parallel simplicity and modesty of set: a large drapery bearing the show’s title hangs prominently in the center of the stage when the show opens. The sign is soon taken down only to be put back up from time to time; behind it, the set contains a few boxes which can be sat or stood upon and which will contain some simple props. Beyond this, the set is sparse.

This relative lack of set is not the product of a modest budget, but is rather part of a paring down on several fronts. The music too is modest, at least in terms of the size of the ensemble: a piano and a harp (both beautifully played by Jamie O’Leary ’04 and Marissa Black ’05, respectively). However, despite the fact that this show may be lacking a fully-stocked orchestra, composer Schmidt still manages to give us beautiful and memorable pieces. The simplicity of music and set does not hold this show back, but rather gives it room to address other issues which are not traditionally found in such seemingly simple musicals.

The modesty of set, music and plot give this show room to explore its own formal properties and the genre of musical theatre. The show very self-consciously opens with each character presenting him or herself to the audience, thus heightening our awareness of the role as audience members and of the fact that what we are watching is theatre. The first song, sung beautifully by the show’s narrator, El Gallo (Rafael Cruz ’05), is addressed to the audience and seems to be some sort of commentary on the story about to be presented. When the song is finished, El Gallo proceeds to speak directly to the audience, giving background on the story to come, introducing the characters, giving commentary on them and then allowing them, as if as puppets or wind-up toys, to present themselves and their inner thoughts to the audience in a very theatrical and self-conscious manner. Thus, from the beginning, the audience is made to be aware of the theatrical nature of the show and can, through the characters of El Gallo and of the Mute (Liz Just ’04), explore the nature of the theatrical experience.

This sort of self-awareness may seem old hat in an age of meta-analysis, where we are used to art about art, writing about writing, film about film. However, the cleverness with which Jones and Schmidt approach this analysis is delightful and fresh. The story makes countless references to numerous Shakespearean plays, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to “Othello,” as well as to other popular plays such as “Our Town” and “The Sound of Music,” and is constantly aware of what it is playing at, twisting these well-known stories around and throwing them back at the audience with new meaning. Jones and Schmidt also seem to be continuously both mocking the genre of musical theatre and delighting in it, exposing its frivolity and its comic elements as well as finding pleasure in them.

Co-directors Emily Isaacson ’04 and Jamie O’Leary ’04 have done a lovely job at putting together this extremely clever and charming show. Their cast – though young and comprised of many actors who are relatively new to the Williams stage – is strong and vibrant, solidly holding up both the acting and musical ends of this production. Near the end of the show, El Gallo gazes out at the audience and, referring to the play which has just been presented, asks, “Very pretty, eh?”

Pretty, certainly, but also very smart, very witty. “The Fantasticks” will appeal to a wide range of audience members, from those seeking to be merely entertained to those who wish to engage with the show on a more intellectual level. The show will take the stage in the AMT Studio Theatre at 8 p.m. from Feb. 28 until March 2.