When one is lionizing The Fantasticks in light of its longevity, it helps to remember that Shear Madness has been running at Boston’s Charles Playhouse for 27 years. In time, such marathoners make their own mythology. Still, you cannot keep Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt’s chamber musical down: having finally closed a 42-year Off Broadway run in 2002, the show has sprung back up in a production that opened last summer at New York’s Snapple Theatre Center, with Jones re-creating Word Baker’s original staging. (The 78-year-old wordsmith also plays the older of the hambones who pop out of a trunk to help El Gallo stage his abduction, as he did under a pseudonym in 1960.)
At Trinity Rep, The Fantasticks profits from being in the hands of a couple of geniuses, director Amanda Dehnert and set designer Eugene Lee, and it resonates as a bookend to the troupe’s recent and compelling revival of another fourth-wall-breaking monument to the universal nestled in the quaint, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Dehnert and Lee add both pyrotechnics and another layer of wistful sentimentality to the piece, setting the commedia-influenced fable not on the traditional bare platform but before a looming, winking re-creation of the now-defunct Rocky Point amusement park in Warwick, Rhode Island, where El Gallo and his mute sidekick are huckstering magicians. Before this backdrop of bygone adventure, the heady romance, bratty disillusion, and hurt-tempered reconciliation of Everyboy and Everygirl unfolds amid partly burned-out midway lights and old advertisements for “clam cake and chowder.” At one point, moonlight — one of the cheap, picturesque props offered by El Gallo — takes the form of a sparkling overhead ‘O’ in “ROCKY POINT.”
After several seasons as associate artistic director and one as acting artistic director, Dehnert decamped from Trinity last fall to become an assistant professor of musical theater at Northwestern University. Although she helmed startlingly original mountings of Saint Joan, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 during her Trinity tenure, she is best remembered for a fresh approach to American musicals that included a My Fair Lady staged around two grand pianos that stood in for an orchestra and an Annie in which the Depression was no cartoon.
There was no need to boil down the orchestration of The Fantasticks, which was originally scored for piano and harp. (Under Tim Robertson’s able musical direction, Trinity throws in percussion.) But the production boasts Dehnert’s usual strengths: a fresh idea in the incorporation of sideshow magic, from disappearing acts to an inhabited cabinet that gets riddled with swords; high-energy drollery clearly enjoyed by the performers; and a well-earned poignance at the end of the show’s tunnel of vaudeville and schmaltz. This last, along with an unusually hard-edged depiction of the world’s sadistic vicissitudes, both sharpens and tempers the second act, which moves masterfully from the petulance of “This Plum Is Too Ripe” to the Cabaret stridency of “Round and Round” to the bruised reconciliation of “They Were You.” But for me, there is probably no act of magic carnival, directorial, or thespian that could make the show’s coy and belabored first act less than grating. “Plant a radish, get a radish,” the song goes. For my money, The Fantasticks plants melodic cuteness all over the yard, then attempts to reap something more profound. It is a testament to the acting by the Trinity leads that it succeeds.