There has always been something magical about "The Fantasticks," the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical that opened in New York in 1960 and ran until 2002, then sparked a 2006 revival that's still running.
At South Coast Repertory — which rarely produces musicals but makes the ones it does stage memorable — magic is front and center, both the sleight-of-hand and the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't varieties.
In this deliciously reimagined production from director Amanda Dehnert, the familiar story of romance, both scenic and cynic, is played out on the boardwalk of a long-defunct carnival called Rocky Point. The magic is provided by a master illusionist, Nate Dendy, who portrays the Mute and becomes the busiest character in the show, even though he has no dialogue.
In concert with Perry Ojeda, whose El Gallo orchestrates the mock abduction (the word "rape" has been excised from the score), Dendy provides the imaginary setting for the tale, with a single pole, held high, representing the "wall" that separates the two young lovers.
These roles — acted by Addi McDaniel (who played the character on Broadway) and Anthony Carillo — are particularly powerful, emphasizing the determination of youthful ardor and naivete. McDaniel is quite lustrous as she glides through her fantasy world longing to be "kissed upon the eyes," while Carillo puts up a hardy front, masking a callow innocence.
Ojeda, whose haunting "Try to Remember" is a highlight of the opening and closing moments of the show, actually is of slighter build than Carillo, increasing the degree of difficulty of his dominance. But he compensates with a sense of vocal and intellectual command and a stylish, almost understated flourish, establishing his unquestioned control.
The two fathers, Gregory North (his) and Scott Waara (hers), are both solidly presented as feuding but secretly friendly neighbors intent on matching their offspring. Their two duets — "I'll Never Say No" and "Plant a Radish" — are marvelous vaudeville-style presentations.
Septuagenarians Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. — the last of SCR's six founding artists still regularly active with the company — are perfectly cast as the hammy old actor and his pseudo-Indian companion. Doyle hilariously misquotes Shakespeare while Landon exhibits his intricate "dying" talent, both skillfully swiping their scenes.
Dendy's magical effects are performed with style and flourish, smoothly incorporated into the plot of the show. At one point, McDaniel's character disappears, then returns almost instantly with a complete change of costume, while Carillo appears to be sliced and diced in a tiny box. It's a magic show incorporated in a stage musical, and it works beautifully.
Musical director Dennis Castellano, who has helmed the musical portions of several SCR productions, maintains a sparkling pace on piano, aided by harpist Ellie Choate and percussionist Louis Allee.
Eugene Lee's imaginative set design and Jessica Ford's rich costumes (especially for Doyle's and Landon's characters) are highly instrumental in the success of the show. Dendy's illusions are primarily the concept of designer Jim Steinmeyer, who has worked with some of the stellar magicians of our day.
You may think you know "The Fantasticks" since it's been around more than half a century, but the current revival takes the show in exciting new directions at South Coast Repertory.
"The Fantasticks" isn't the only show at South Coast Repertory this weekend. SCR's Theatre for Young Audiences is presenting "The Night Fairy," by Laura Amy Schlitz and adapted by SCR's John Glore, for three weekends, through June 9.
This story of a tiny sprite living among "giants" is directed by Oanh Nguyen and will be presented on the Julianne Argyros Stage. Call (714) 708-5555 for ticket information.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "The Fantasticks"
Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until June 9
Cost: Starts at $23
Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org