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As I sat down for Quintessence Theatre Group’s production of The Fantasticks (running through Sunday, December 31), I knew the basic plot and was aware of the 1960 show’s history as a beloved, long-running Off-Broadway institution. What I didn’t know was that lyricist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt, influenced by the Beats, Blake, and fifties alienation, had created such a poetic, radical, and haunting musical.
Despite the complex use of imagery, jazz-like rhyme, and symbolism onstage, the plot seems deceptively simple, as does the piano and harp score played here by Chris Ertelt and Mia Venezia. As narrator and bandit El Gallo (Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton) explains, two neighboring gardeners, Hucklebee (Eleni Delopoulos) and Bellomy (Steven Wright), are seemingly locked in an endless feud. The two even build a wall (embodied in the pantomime of Karen Getz) to separate each house to the consternation of their respective teenage children, Matt (Brandon Walters) and Lucia (Raffaela Cicchetti). Matt and Lucia, you see, are in swooning, doe-eyed, puppy-dog love, and this separation only fuels their idealistic, romantic fervor.
It’s quickly revealed that Hucklebee and Bellomy have faked their squabbles to push the lovebirds closer together. The pair go so far as to stage a kidnapping with El Gallo that’ll make Matt look like a hero to Lucia. (This aspect of the plot has notably changed the most since its original staging in 1960.) The first act makes heavy references to Shakespeare and Italian farce, especially with the antics of older actors Henry (Frank X) and Mortimer (John Zak) taking center stage, and the happy ending seemingly staged before intermission makes sense for a Punch and Judy show or Much Ado About Nothing.
The story isn’t over
Except there isn’t a happily ever after: Quintessence doesn’t soften any of the edges in the show’s bleak and painful yet beautiful second act. The story isn’t over. Marriage is hard. The world is hard, and people will take advantage of you. Children leave home one day. The real story is in Matt and Lucia growing up, learning about pain, and realizing love isn’t a metaphor but something much deeper. The Fantasticks often feels like an adaptation of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Songs of Experience (and it clearly influenced the bifurcated structure of Into the Woods), drawing a distinction between youthful folly and rueful adulthood without dismissing either mode of thought.
Initially, I didn’t love the broad farce and romanticism of this musical. Yet Megan Bellwoar’s patient, often sparse, direction and the actors’ commitment to their characters slowly but surely won me over. Cicchetti and Walters, as Lucia and Matt, especially nail the teens’ transition from wide-eyed naivete to horror and hard-won understanding, while Toniazzo-Naughton is both menacing and not without humanity as the charming El Gallo. The minimal set designs by Meghan Jones, including a painted moon and hung sheets, enhance the intimacy and child-like quality of the staging.
Try to remember
The narrator asks in the opening and closing song if we can “try to remember when life was so tender” when we were as young and silly as Matt and Lucia. Watching The Fantasticks, I remembered not just being 20 and falling in love for the first time, but the pain of rejection and what I learned from that heartbreak and loss. If you also want to evoke that period in your life, or are young yourself and live in the Philadelphia area, then head to the Sedgwick Theater “deep in December” and follow.
What, When, Where
The Fantasticks. Book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt; directed by Meghan Bellwoar. $30-$75 ($15 for students). Through January 7, 2024, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. A private, all-gender, accessible restroom is available in the main lobby.
Masks are not required.
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