AT THE BEGINNING of The Fantasticks, the female lead, Luisa (Angelynne Koromilas), winks coyly at the audience before running offstage Indeed, the characters are continually winking their way through their lines. The result is an entirely pleasurable evening of parody--of romantic love, of plays about romantic love. and even of people who go to see plays about romantic love.
The bare bones of the plot couldn't be more simple: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy wins girl, all to the dentist-chair strains of "Try to remember that kind of September... "The lines that try to be soupy could hardly be soupier: "Instead of reading textbooks they tried to memorize the moon." The issues couldn't be more clear-cut: two fathers unalterably opposed to the marriage.
But the lines go from the sublime to the ridiculous with blinding alternation. Luisa is an unabashed romantic. She dreams of the far-off lands she reads about in her childhood adventure stories. But she inevitably takes this image of childhood romantic vision too far. Luisa tells how she sits and dreams--and then tells how she hugs herself until her arms turn blue. Again and again, a potentially moving moment is totally transformed with a wink of the eye, as it suddenly becomes absurd. An initially pleasant duet between Luisa and Matt (Vaughn Winchell) becomes odd--to say the least--when it breaks into a cheerful counterpoint of Matt singing. "You are love!," and Luisa rejoining, "I am love!"
Koromilas and Winchell make a fine pair. Koromilas is a comically inspired Kewpie doll of a Luisa, sighing at far-off places, and swooning at the word "love." Winchell is a fine foil to this, lending his part the clean-cut earnestness it requires, even if he perpetually seems about to break into a smirk about the whole thing.
WITH THIS subline/ridiculous mood firmly in place, the actors go out and have a good time. The singing is occasionally a bit weak, but some witty lyrics and a lot of eager mugging and gesticulating more than carry the songs. Particularly amusing is the whole subplot of a staged "rape" (a lengthy insertion in the program apologizes for the word, and attempts to put it in historical context). Staged by the fathers (Douglas Freeman and Bob Carey)--who, it turns out, really favor union--the rape is designed to bring the two young people together.
The whole rape scene provides the scene for some light comic interplay. A rather sardonic but winning El Gallo (Rich Dikeman) steps forwards to stage the event, for a price. Enlisting a pair of dubious Shakespearian actors, who have their moments in a rather absurd subplot. El Gallo pulls off what he calls a "first-class rape."
The so-called rape--of course, the fathers never intended the real thing--is thoroughly staged, and staging is really what the whole show is about. Written around the time of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The Fantasticks is filled with the play's brand of direct remarks to the audience about the play in progress. A narrator introduces the characters who, in turn, give brief synopses of their lives. We are told what plot turns are to come, and even what lessons to derive from it all.
One of the major lessons of the play--"simplicity, simplicity, simplicity," in one character's words--is admirably carried out in the play's staging. The stage and props are unembellished, and the action unceremoniously set off from the audience by some well-placed mattresses. The lighting is unobtrusive, and the music--fine accompaniment by piano and harp--is rather low-key for a musical.
But perhaps the real charm of the play is its elusiveness of view-point. If it seems at times to mock the absurdities of love--Matt exclaims of a wall the fathers built between the lovers' houses, "they built it ages ago... last month"--in the end, it reaffirms a sort of worldly-wise romanticism. In one of the funniest numbers of the play, El Gallo shows Luisa the splendors of the world, and gives her a mask to wear whenever a fire or assault mars the picture. Such sarcastic images continually surface whenever the play's world-view seems a little too rosy.
In the end, the play's strength lies not in its great insights into the human condition. It is a funny, sprightly musical that seems to say that love is absurd, that it has a way of sinking to the banalities of a badly written romance, but that love is allowed to appear banal, because it never really is.