Lyricist/librettist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt’s tender, intimate 1960 musical “The Fantasticks,” loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s 1894 play “Les Romanesques,” receives a visually engaging, strikingly designed presentation at the Dayton Playhouse.
Matthew W. Smith spearheads his finest directorial achievement thus far by envisioning the material with nods to commedia dell’arte and vaudeville with particularly lovely sprinkles of whimsicality recalling Jones’ superb direction of the current off-Broadway production. Smith’s show-within-a-show concept is marvelously heightened by scenic designer Chris Newman’s treasure trove of collectibles. Books, lampshades, drums, candles, candelabras, curtains, trunks, and more accent the minimalist approach that has worked so well for this musical since its inception. After all, “The Fantasticks” can be told anytime, anyplace so it’s great to see such an imaginative focus soundly implemented and executed.
Tyler Henry and Kami Flanders, in lead acting Playhouse debuts, are compatibly cute as Matt and Luisa, lovebirds separated by a wall unaware their scheming fathers have been their matchmakers for years. Henry, confident and mature, and Flanders, demure and capricious, are responsible for singing the majority of the vocally challenging score and do so admirably, particularly the gorgeous “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You.” The duo also brings ample dismay and potency to Matt and Luisa’s pivotal if drawn-out Act 2 separation that finds the couple searching for more after realizing every happy ending has a price.
Rob Willoughby (as Matt’s father Hucklebee) and Brian Sharp (as Luisa’s father Bellomy) create a warm, humorous partnership genuinely grounded in friendship and mutual parental interest, wonderfully displayed in their rendition of “Plant a Radish.” As wistful narrator El Gallo, Shawn Hooks, in excellent voice from the very first strains of the straightforwardly sublime “Try to Remember,” lessens the brooding, mysterious qualities of the role in favor of an amiable, conversational approach that is more magnetic and accessible. Charles Larkowski (Henry) and Saul Caplan (Mortimer) are a comical joy as a pair of veteran actors who help El Gallo in a fake kidnapping ultimately transpiring with Matt as a hero. Caplan is hilarious in his American Indian garb/makeup, and Larkowski, effortlessly natural and inviting in a funny, refined, attention-grabbing role that requires him to be slightly over-the-top, keeps the frivolity of their scenes at an entertaining high. The handsomely mirthful William Scarborough has great presence and smoothly fuel’s the production’s fancifulness as the Mute who at times represents the wall.
Smith’s terrific creative team includes costumer Janet G. Powell (Willoughby and Sharp’s colorful outfits are particularly appealing), lighting designer Anita Bachmann, sound designer Bob Kovach, choreographer Mike Embree (who actually releases “Much More” from its typical stiltedness), fight choreographers Natasha Randall and Craig Roberts, and musical director Ron Kindell whose fine four-piece orchestra features lilting piano accompaniment by Bryon Dobbs.
As Valentine’s Day beckons, “The Fantasticks” certainly satisfies as a romantic escape worth exploring.
“The Fantasticks” continues through Feb. 8 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 45 minutes. Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit online at www.daytonplayhouse.com