It is an enigma that The Fantasticks, nowplaying at the Hayes Theatre, could be the longest running musical theatre show in New York, playing for 42 years from 1960 and then a revival in 2006 that is still running. Perhaps its special place in the hearts of so many American theatre goers is due to Barbra Streisand recording its hit song, Try to Remember. Or perhaps it is because, having a small cast, no set and requiring only two musicians, it is the most often performed student and community musical in America.
But to someone who has not had a love of The Fantasticks imprinted into their cultural DNA, there is very little to like about this show. In particular, The Fantasticks has such a paltry script. Even Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics, has commented that the story is flimsy. It feels like a cross between a panto and a theatre workshop.
The show parodies a couple of Shakespearean conceits, taking the idea of star crossed lovers and warring families from Romeo and Juliet, plus a little bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream with a Puckish troublemaking character (a malevolent, Spanish bandit) who speaks in rhyming couplets.
Based on Edmond Rostand’s unsuccessful 1894 burlesque, Les Romanesques, it is about two scheming fathers’ plan to get their children to marry by feigning a feud and building a wall between their properties. They hire a bandit, El Gallo to fake an abduction of the young girl Louisa so that the unknowing young lover, Matt, can fight them off and be seen as a hero. But, in addition, El Gallo decides to do some meddling of his own.
Maybe in its day, 50 odd years ago, in a tiny off Broadway theatre in New York, at a time when a theatre workshop style of performance was becoming popular, it was charming and cute and the theatre making style was fresh and new. Indeed, early descriptions of the production cite Brecht, Noh and Commedia dell’arte influences. Although the original reviews panned it, the show gained popularity through word of mouth. Maybe the direction was so cleverly executed and innovative and maybe the performers were so dazzlingly talented and charismatic that the original production was able to make something special out of this very slight show. It’s not just slight. Many great comedies and musicals shows are based on a slim idea; but the script is also repetitive and the dialogue is corny.
The paucity of ideas in the script is quite remarkable and it is neither the friend of the performers or the director who have to work very hard with very little. All credit goes to a strong cast, who do their best. Martin Crewes and Garry Scale both maintain a terrific energy throughout.
The music is better than the script, but there are not enough good numbers in it to keep our attention. Young newcomers Bobbie-Jean Henning as Louisa and Jonathan Hickey as Matt both gave sweet and pure renditions of their songs. The absolute beauty of Hickey’s voice was almost enough to make the whole evening worthwhile. His gorgeous voice was definitely the highlight of the show.
A lot of the responsibility sits on the shoulders of the director to make this show work and unfortunately the direction is often clumsy and many scenes are awkward. It runs at two and a half hours, including interval, and it seriously needs a good 30 minutes cut. The dialogue in many of the scenes is repetitive and there are too many overly long scenes – one in which the fathers rebuild the wall, another in which El Gallo recruits his two henchmen and a dire dance sequence in which El Gallo abducts Louisa for a second time.
No review about this production would be complete without a comment about the Rape Ballet, which is a cheesy little song sung by El Gallo about the multitude of ways that a woman can be raped: “you can be raped on horseback, you can be raped by an Indian…”
It didn’t go down well. Does anybody find rape jokes funny? Apart from a couple of laughs coming from the back of the theatre, many in the audience were stony. I have never felt an audience turn so instantaneously.
Tom Jones must have felt the need to excuse his choice of words even when he originally wrote it as El Gallo explains that he is not using the generally accepted meaning of the word but going back to the Latin root, meaning “to seize”. Really? This song has always been controversial. In fact, because of its offensiveness Jones later wrote an alternative, less offensive version of the song that can be used in place of the original or suggested that “take” or “abduction” might replace “rape” to cause less offense.
At a time when Rosie Batty and so many other women are trying to address the very serious issue of violence towards women and their children, director Helen Dallimore has chosen to stick with the original. This might be acceptable if she had intended to comment on Louisa’s exploitation: used as an object by the fathers to achieve their own ends and then by the sexually exploitative and abusive El Gallo. But there was no commentary or irony. At one point Louisa proudly shows El Gallo a ribbon that she has tied around her wrist saying that this is where he bruised her. It reminded me of song by Carole King and Gerry Goffin He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss) – except that song is highlighting violence against women and this show just isn’t.
I am a great fan of the Hayes Theatre. For the last couple of years, it has been on fire, generating more theatrical heat than any other performing arts venue in Sydney. Its output alone is prodigious, producing work after work, including full scale musicals, smaller works and cabaret festivals. Pretty well everything has been of a very high standard as reviews, awards and audience numbers reflect. But this one fell short of the mark.
Wooden Horse Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co presents
music Harvey Schmidt | book and lyrics Tom Jones
Director Helen Dallimore
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Dates: 11 – 31 January 2016
Tickets: $59 – $45
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337