If you heard that Palm Beach Dramaworks picked The Fantasticks as its summer show and thought, “oh, that old thing,” don’t be so quick to assume that a 1960 musical fable has become irrelevant.
After all, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ enduring hit is a record-setter: Its original Off-Broadway run lasted for 17,162 performances, adding up to 42 years of beguiling its audiences. By turns funny, romantic and sobering, The Fantasticks has endured because its observations about life, innocence and disillusionment are universal and timeless. And a simple-by-design, eight-character musical with a charming, familiar score is like catnip to producers and artistic directors.
Dramaworks is giving its summertime loyalists a Fantasticks that is, well, fantastic. Artfully directed by J. Barry Lewis, with exquisite musical direction by Craig D. Ames, the production is beautifully sung by its cast of familiar South Florida actors and newcomers. With Ames at the piano and Kay Kemper playing the harp, a score full of familiar songs — Try to Remember, Soon It’s Gonna Rain, They Were You and more — is delivered with shimmering simplicity and purity.
Anchored by a dashing Jim Ballard as the roguish narrator El Gallo, the cast deftly navigates the show’s sweetness, humor and sobering second act. Soprano Jennifer Molly Bell is an always-appealing Luisa, never off-putting despite the 16-year-old’s flights of romantic fancy and teen self-absorption. Jacob Heimer is likewise engaging as know-it-all Matt, Luisa’s neighbor and would-be beau, and his duets with Bell on Metaphor, Soon It’s Gonna Rain and They Were You are grand.
Barry J. Tarallo as Luisa’s father Bellomy and Cliff Goulet as Matt’s father Hucklebee may look slightly goofy in their striped-and-checked getups from costume designer Brian O’Keefe, but their wonderful voices enrich the vocal blend as they scheme to have their kids fall in love by pretending to be enemies. Dennis Creaghan as the grandly hammy old actor Henry and Tangi Colombel as Henry’s sidekick Mortimer are clever clowns. And Cliff Burgess, though he speaks not a word in playing The Mute, proves the most versatile and communicative of actors, sprinkling the actors with shiny metallic raindrops and white snowflakes, standing in for the wall that separates the young lovers, even doing a highly effective turn-off-your-phones bit before the show.
Finishing out its first season in its larger yet still intimate home on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Dramaworks has built its reputation and a loyal audience by doing first-rate productions of all kinds of theater — recent and vintage works, plays and musicals, American and world classics. The Fantasticks adds to the company’s string of successes.