The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. In America, it is New York’s longest-running show, with the original off-Broadway run lasting for 42 years until January 2002, and the current revival continues since opening in 2006.
In the UK, however, it’s a very different story indeed. The original 1961 West End production ran for just 44 performances, and a 2010 revival closed after three weeks. Smaller scale revivals with short fixed runs have fared better, demonstrating perhaps that this is not a West End show, but one which suits the size of a fringe venue. And in the Jermyn Street theatre, which has the intimacy of fringe just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, it nestles pleasantly and inoffensively for a week.
The plot, which is very loosely based on one of Rostand’s, has echoes of a medieval morality tale – indeed, the lovers at the heart of the story are initially separated by a wall that directly echoes the Pyramus and Thisbe production performed by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, it transpires, the wall is a fake – the supposedly warring fathers of the romantic leads are in cahoots, assuming correctly that their being at loggerheads will cause their children to rebel and fall in love with each other.
As the young lovers Luisa and Matt, Emma Harrold and James Irving bring the characters’ naiveté to life. Both have strong voices, full of character, with Harrold in particular possessing a sweet soprano trill that she ought to be able to put into good use once she graduates from the Royal Academy of Music’s musical theatre course.
Brian McCann and Tim Walton give their one-dimensional parent characters their all, but all the principals are dwarfed by the narrator and troublemaker, El Gallo. Gavin James’ character is hired by the parents to pretened to abduct Luisa so that Matt will come to her rescue, and as such he is really the only character that progresses the story along to any degree. Comedy character moments from Seamus Newham as a faded Shakesperean actor and, especially, James Weal as his acrobatic, mostly silent assistant certainly enliven the show’s duller moments, of which there threaten to be rather more than there should. And Greg Page’s permanently exasperated stage manager, while completely superfluous to the plot, bears enough of a resemblance to Michael Billington to wonder if the critic has started taking a hands-on role in a show he panned a few years ago.
Musically, the show is sweet and has plenty of opportunity for the cast to show off their vocal talents. However, because the musical’s stand out songs, Soon It’s Gonna Rain and the more well-known Try to Remember dominate the first act, and the principal story peters out by the interval, it’s a bit more of a stretch for the audience to enjoy the show throughout.
So, for the life of me, I fail to see just why off-Broadway has taken this show to their hearts so much. But I’m glad I’ve seen it, and delighted that I’ve seen some fine performers show what they’re capable of.
Rose Bridge Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks continues at Jermyn Street Theatre until July 27. For more details, visit rosebridgetheatre.com